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Paul EvansThere are two things you're likely to encounter in any American airport: long security lines and the novels of Mary Higgins Clark. Since hitting it big in 1975 with the mystery Where Are the Children?, Clark has written more than thirty bestselling books, which have sold fifty million copies in the United States alone, earning her the title "Queen of Suspense." In April 2000, she signed a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster worth an astonishing $64 million. At the age of seventy-four, the woman is an industry, the publishing world's equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts in her zest for turning out product. It isn't just Americans who can't get enough of her. Clark is an international star whose books have been translated into thirty-one languages. The inscrutable French government has accorded her its Grand Prix de Literature, though the ghost of Voltaire would likely find this maneuver droll. Even Pope John Paul II knows her name: A few years ago, he bestowed upon her the title Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.
So there's some anticipation for her new memoir, Kitchen Privileges. Certainly the author of such dramas as Moonlight Becomes You, The Plot Thickens and The Cradle Will Fall must have a dramatic story of her own. And while only the naive would assume that Clark herself might be as entertaining as her relentlessly plucky heroines, there's little that could prepare fans for what they'll find in her memoir. Crack open the book to most any page and you'll encounter passages like this: "I'd had a Saturday job at Lord & Taylor selling coats. The pay had been five dollars a day, but the real perk was the 30 percent employee discount.... I'd keep an eye on a dress or suit that I wanted, sure that at some point it would be reduced, then track it until the final reduction and buy it with my 30 percent discount."
It turns out that Kitchen Privileges is one of the most yawn-inducing autobiographies in recent memory. While Clark is of course entitled to an ordinary life of everyday joys and pathos, we do hope for some interesting meditation on her extraordinary career, whether it's straight talk about her writing and success, some tips of the trade, the inside skinny on publishing, a few anecdotes about how she contrives her plots. This is an author, after all, who's spun tales about everything from parapsychology to politics, cruise ships to the death penalty, child molesting to haute couture.
The book begins with Clark's nostalgia for her blue-collar, Depression-era childhood in the Bronx. We don't get much about girl Mary other than a collection of stock answers and platitudes. Her "Emerald Isle" ancestry gave her the gift of gab; her mom was a saint. Clark does write affectingly, if briefly, about her relationship with her father, who died when she was ten, only to barrel ahead once again into minutiae.
We learn a bit, but not much, about her stint at an ad agency; we're told about the glamour of her years as a Pan Am stewardess, but we're never shown what made the job so glamorous. Infatuated with the fiction in Ladies' Home Journal and Redbook, Clark begins to write around the time she marries her first husband, Warren, in 1949 (she does write convincingly of their romance). Nothing if not dogged, she works six years before selling a story, for one hundred dollars, to a magazine, but we're not privy to the details of her struggle. Leaving five children behind, Warren dies in 1964; Mary perseveres, rising daily at 5 a.m. to write. She publishes her first book, Aspire to the Heavens, a biographical novel of George and Martha Washington, in 1969. With booksellers mis-shelving it as an inspirational guide, the book bombs. Less than a decade later, her second suspense novel, A Stranger Is Watching, sells for a million dollars.
There's a pretty great story here—a kind of Horatio Alger saga of overcoming adversity with grit—but we never find out how her work went from the rejection pile to the bookshelf nearest the cash register. Her yarns about her apprenticeship writing radio programs aren't very revealing, and when she lets us in on the one great bit of advice she received from a New York University writing instructor—"Ask yourself two questions, 'Suppose?' and 'What if?'"—we're left to wonder: That's the secret? In the end, Clark bafflingly sticks to a sort of laundry-list narrative—flat gossip about house buying, vacations, firing maids.
The memoir leads us up to the sale of Where Are the Children? and then abruptly flashes forward to an epilogue crammed with teasingly intriguing stuff—her return to school (to study philosophy at Fordham!), a second marriage (on which she expends exactly thirteen words), and a third marriage (which we're pleased to learn is blissful, although we're not sure why).
By adamantly failing to tell us much of anything about her inner life, Mary Higgins Clark makes it impossible for us to care much about it. A shame, then, that the one tale this veteran storyteller blows turns out to be her own.