Danielle Steel has always been known for emotional stories that involve crises in relationships, especially within families. My favourite Steel novel is Sisters, a novel about, you guessed it, sisters. I’ve always been an aficionado of family stories, coming from a big family myself (believe me, nine siblings are like nine different and never-ending books in themselves).
One of Steel’s more recent novels, Prodigal Son, tells the story of twin brothers Michael and Peter McDowell, their relationship with each other and with their own families. Many readers might perceive some relatability in certain family issues in the novel, such as parental expectations and sibling rivalry.
The title of the book draws on the famous parable of the prodigal son. The son in question is welcomed home by his father after squandering his father’s wealth, much to the chagrin of the other son who has always displayed filial obedience and loyalty. This novel offers a fresh twist to the biblical parable that inspires it.
When Whitman Broadbank, a prestigious investment bank in New York, declares bankruptcy, the successful businessman Peter McDowell loses the fruits of his labour. He reluctantly travels with his wife and sons to his prosperous father-in-law’s home in Los Angeles but finds life distasteful and undignified there. As a result, his marriage also fails. Alone and with no job prospects, Peter turns to his sanctuary, a cottage at Lake Wickaboag, the only inheritance he received from his parents twenty years ago. His deceased parents would be right about him after all. Peter had always been the ‘black sheep’. The one who wouldn’t amount to anything, unlike his brother, Michael McDowell.
In the small town of Ware, Massachusetts, Michael is a dedicated doctor and family man, respected by all and dearly loved by his wife and daughter. He has to cope with hardships too. His eldest child, Bill, lives abroad, his wife Maggie is a virtually bedridden invalid and his teenaged daughter Lisa is pressured to take on the duties of homemaker in her piteous mother’s stead.
The surprisingly gentle reunion of both brothers is, in my opinion, the turning point of the story. The relationship the McDowell brothers had with their parents impacts their own fraternal connection to a great extent. Thus, the novel’s apposite title could also hint at the intricacies of familial and filial bonds. Selflessness and selfishness apparently form the respective characters of Michael and Peter McDowell, but as the novel progresses, the vicissitudes of life reveal the unseen depths of the brothers’ inner being, their motives and anxieties.
Steel’s linear narrative flows smoothly, which makes for a relaxing read. Some have criticised Steel’s ‘formulaic’ and exaggerated plotlines, but her characters are nonetheless vivid and their stories are wrought with undertones of psychological and emotional complexity too startling to be ignored. Prodigal Son is therefore an engaging piece of genre fiction that would make an excellent addition to your bookshelf.