I was queuing in a café in Carrick-on-Shannon when my life became a little more glamorous. I hadn’t expected much glitzy drama from a work trip to an Irish midlands town, but that was before I idly picked up a battered copy of Judith Krantz’s 1986 novel I’ll Take Manhattan from the café’s bookshelf. Half an hour and one smoked-salmon bagel later, I was hooked.
I’ll Take Manhattan recounts the adventures of Maxi Amberville, the “bold, brash and beautiful” heiress to the Amberville publishing empire. Maxi begins the novel by racing off Concorde “with characteristic impatience and a lifelong disregard for regulations”, before smuggling a priceless necklace under her cognac-coloured suede jacket, bribing the customs officer to ignore her crimes with the promise of a date and then heading to a board meeting of Amberville Publications, where she discovers her evil uncle Cutter has married her recently widowed mother, Lily, and is planning to shut down most of the company’s magazines. All this happens in the first 22 pages.
In other words, I’ll Take Manhattan is the perfect summer bonkbuster. As soon as lunch was over, I bought the paperback (it wasn’t officially for sale, but they gave it to me for a donation to the café’s charity jar) and, when I got home, I spent an entire day in a deckchair, blissfully engrossed in Maxi’s antics. Having just put together a summer-reading spread for an Irish broadsheet, I knew how many brilliant and engrossing books had been published in 2018. But I had to admit that few of them provided quite as much pure unadulterated fun as what the blurb gloriously described as “the crème de la Krantz”.
Ever since the novel emerged as a popular form in the 18th century, there have been racy books that were denounced as trash by critics and devoured by readers. But the bonkbuster as we know and love it has its roots in the 1966 publication of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, which detailed the rise – and fall – of three very different young women who embark on showbiz careers.
The book sold more than 31 million copies and kicked off several decades of bestsellers set in the unspeakably glamorous worlds of movies, fashion and glossy magazines, books in which heroines are never “girls next door” unless you happen to live next to a penthouse, and “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. By the 1980s, the height of the bonkbuster phenomenon, writers such as Jackie Collins, Shirley Conran, Danielle Steel, Jilly Cooper (for those who preferred more rustic excitement) and, of course, Krantz, were household names.
And not just among adults. Like many women of my fortysomething generation, Kirstie McDermott, an editor from Dublin, raided her mother’s bookshelf for bonkbusters as a teen: “My mother had a fine selection of Judith Krantz books, which I’ve hounded her for over the last few years.” As Kirstie points out, this was an age when girls had far fewer entertainment options than today’s kids, so it’s not surprising that we devoured the likes of Lady Boss and Princess Daisy. “They were racy, sexy, a bit forbidden – I was definitely too young to have read several of them,” she says. “And they introduced me to a sophisticated world of money, blended families, crazy antics and intrigue I was fascinated by.”
So, what lessons were we learning from the school of Conran, Collins and Krantz?
Some surprisingly positive ones, because as the bonkbuster evolved, so did its heroines. The blurb of Jacqueline Susann’s 1969 novel The Love Machine referred to its tragic heroines as “women, the eternal losers”. But by the time Krantz’s debut novel, Scruples, appeared in 1978, things had changed. Like Susann’s gorgeous pill-popping protagonists, Krantz’s heroines rose – but they didn’t fall. They cared about their careers, as well as the men in their lives.
These are books in which heroines are never ‘girls next door’ unless you happen to live next to a penthouse, and ‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?’
And when it came to men (and, yes, it was generally men), these women took charge of their own pleasure. There’s a lot of cunnilingus in 1980s bonkbusters. Shirley Conran decided to write her 1982 megaseller, Lace, because her job as a newspaper women’s page editor had shown her how tragically ignorant women were about their own sexuality. She knew the best way to inform girls about sex was through the sort of book they’d furtively pass around in school, and she wanted to show the world that sex should be fun for women. “I am,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2012, “on a one-woman mission to inform men about the clitoris.”
Of course, even if you ignore the celebration of lavish wealth and privilege that permeates the bonkbuster, the books are not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. The characters are overwhelmingly white, thin and straight. And there are some nasty shocks, such as the moment in I’ll Take Manhattan when we discover Maxi lives in Trump Tower, which she bought from “her friend, Donald Trump”. With their preposterous plots and total lack of anything approaching gritty realism, it’s easy to sneer at these books – plenty of people did.
But anyone who thinks it’s easy to write an outrageous page-turner should try writing one. For every gripping, glittering page-turner, there were plenty of formulaic tales written in leaden prose. In her 1969 profile of Jacqueline Susann, Nora Ephron decried the “sloppy imitators of Miss Susann’s style” and declared that “good kitschy writers are born, not made. And when Jacqueline Susann sits down at her typewriter on Central Park South, what spills out is first rate kitsch.” The same could be said of Collins and Krantz.
As soon as I finished I’ll Take Manhattan, I bought a copy of Scruples. Before I’d even finished it, I’d bought Princess Daisy online. The world may be in chaos, partly thanks to Maxi’s old pal Donald, and we need to keep fighting bigotry and social inequality. But we also need a break, once in a while. And what better way to escape during this long, hot, scary summer than by briefly plunging into a world of gorgeous clothes and glittering creativity, a world in which witty, determined women always come out on top?
5 CLASSIC BONKBUSTERS
The eponymous dolls are barbiturates – and ultimately the tragic heroines of Susann’s camp masterpiece can’t get enough of them. As Nora Ephron said, this is first-rate kitsch.
Billy Ikehorn, a bored and rich widow, sets up the most glamorous boutique Hollywood has ever seen – with the help of talented designer Valentine O’Neill and sexy photographer/retail expert Spider.
Follow the high-flying adventures of Pagan, Judy, Maxine and Kate, friends since their days at an elite Swiss boarding school, who will one day be asked ‘‘Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
With her giant hair and trademark leopard-print, Jackie exemplified bonkbuster glamour. Her ninth novel was her biggest hit, offering an insider’s view of LA’s elite.
Cooper was best known for writing about shenanigans amid the horseboxes, but here she turned to the cut-throat world of television with equally entertaining results.