After being prevented from traveling because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was finally able to visit my family for the holidays. Rummaging through old closets, drawers, and bookshelves, in the attic, among a set of books that used to be in my old room, I stumbled upon Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz.
I didn’t expect Mistral’s Daughter to be my holiday read, but I adored that book in my early teens, and so I decided to revisit its pages. Rereading this book all these years later, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and I was struck by how different this book would have been received had it been written by a man.
Mistral’s Daughter is the story of three generations of women–Maggie Lunel, her daughter Theodora (or “Teddy” for short), and her granddaughter Fauve–and their relationship to the genius artist and painter Julien Mistral. The story starts in the artists quarters of Montmartre in Paris in the 1920s and then branches out to New York City and Provence in the south of France where it ends sometime in the 1970s. It is a story of love, women’s empowerment, male narcissism, and art. The main characters are all women. Except for Julien Mistral, the men are side characters.
First published in 1982, Mistral’s Daughter was Judith Krantz’s third novel after Scruples and Princess Daisy. In 1984, it became a star-studded miniseries, starring Stephanie Powers as Maggie and Stacy Keach as Mistral.
Krantz began writing novels at the age of 50, after a long career in the magazine publishing business. She would go on to write ten novels and one autobiography and sell 85 million copies of her books, which were translated into 50 languages and spawned three TV mini series, despite the fact that the literary establishment immediately and for the duration of her publication career labled her work as schlocky.
When Krantz passed away in 2019, she was remembered as an author of women’s fiction who reveled in the glitz, glamour, and superficiality of high fashion and high-end magazine publishing, and who peppered her novels with explicit and gratuitous sex scenes. In their obituary of Krantz, The New York Times wrote that Krantz’s success came from “a formula that she honed to glittering perfection: fevered horizontal activities combined with fevered vertical ones — the former taking place in sumptuously appointed bedrooms and five-star hotels, the latter anywhere with a cash register and astronomical price tags,” while The Guardian stated that the “shopping in the novels of Judith Krantz had an intensity the sex could never match.” These are assessments that can be traced back to the original reviews of Krantz’s books. In her review of Mistral’s Daughter from 1983, New York Times’ art critic Grace Glueck states that the prose of Judith Krantz is so over-laden that she feels as if she is digesting 1,000 calories every time she turns the page, and that the book is filled with earth-shattering sex scenes with “multiple orgasms every dozen pages.”
What I find interesting is that when Krantz’s work is discussed, the focus is either on Scruples or Princess Daisy, never Mistral’s Daughter. Probably because, even though Mistral’s Daughter clearly is a Judith Krantz novel, it doesn’t fit the critic’s formula.
Yes, Mistral’s Daughter takes place in the world of high fashion and glossy magazine publishing. (But only partially.)
Yes, there is a headstrong female protagonist. (In fact, Mistral’s Daughter has three of them, but ultimately, this is Maggie’s story.)
Yes, there is sex.
Yes, there is shopping.
Yes, the story is told in “modifier-laden detail.”
But. The novel only contains four sex scenes. They are all at the beginning of the book (which should tell you how much of the novel Glueck actually read back in 1983), they are all important to the plot, and all of them take place at lower-class locations, such as Mistral’s Montmartre studio, Maggie’s scruffy Paris apartment, and a room above a countryside inn in Provence. It is notable that the relationship between Maggie and her life-partner Jason Darcy, which begins when both of them already belong to the elite of New York City, is never given its own sex scene. They hardly even kiss. Fauve, who clearly has an active sex life, is never given her own sex scene. The closest the book comes to giving her one is when she wakes up naked in a bed that is not hers.
Nobody goes shopping. Maggie agrees to be taken shopping by others, but only reluctantly because her clothes are worn out and because she is moving up in society. What eventually will be of consequence to the story are items that initially are mentioned only in passing. Teddy wears the clothes her stylist gives her without any input of her own. Fauve treats fashion as an after thought. Kate Browning, the woman Mistral eventually marries, doesn’t go shopping either; she’s too busy controlling her husband’s career. Daughter of Kate Browning and Julien Mistral, Nadine Mistral goes to a showing at Yves Saint Laurent where she jots down the numbers of all the clothes she wants to buy. However, the scene is written in anger, and in the end, she leaves without buying a single thing.
Krantz’s text is peppered with adjectives, which understandably comes across as subpar writing to a publishing world where “show-don’t-tell” reigns supreme. But what this prolific use of adjectives does is to draw the reader in and place them in the scene. It is direct, cuts to the quick of what is important, and paints a vivid picture using only a couple of brush strokes instead of a whole paragraph. This becomes particularly important in a novel such as Mistral’s Daughter where the artistic talent of Julien Mistral is at the center of the plot. To be able to convey someone’s visceral reaction when they see a painting by Mistral only adjectives will do.
What is completely overlooked when it comes to Mistral’s Daughter is that it is a book steeped in Jewish spirituality. The story builds towards its climax by having Fauve research the persecution of the Jews of France during World War II as it played out in Provence, and as part of her quest visit a centuries-old synagogue and learn about Mistral’s behaviour towards his old Jewish friends. The climax of the novel takes place after the death of Mistral with the unveiling of his final paintings, which turn out to be a series based on the Jewish holidays. And the coup-de-grace: as Fauve exits her father’s studio after seeing the paintings, there is a small piece of paper nailed to his easel, and she bends over to take a closer look. By having Fauve read the note out loud, part of the last sentence of the novel’s climax is the Shema.
What is also overlooked, is that behind the glitz, glamour, and the idolizing of Mistral as the alpha male that affects the lives of three generations of women is an indictment of the veneration of the male genius. Mistral is a genuinely unpleasant person who puts his work before everyone, including his family and friends running for their lives. Where everyone else would be held accountable for their actions, Mistral gets a free pass because he is a Genius.
The reception of Judith Krantz’s work as an author is a typical example of how fiction centered on women is villified by literary critics and society in general. Krantz was a good writer, she knew her craft, she created compelling stories propelled by the actions of well-rounded characters, and Mistral’s Daughter is one of the best books I have read. Had she been a man writing about Julien Mistral and the women he seduced, rather than a woman writing about Maggie Lunel and her descendants, she would have been declared a genius. Because as Krantz herself makes clear for those who are open-minded enough to see, the man who is declared a genius can get away with anything.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.