It’s time for our annual look back at the 1980s, to see whether the bestselling novels of the era have stood the test of time, or if they were starting to show their age (and their shoulder pads). In between watching Back to the Future and trying out New Coke, here’s what American readers were enjoying in 1985.
Readers of the 1980s loved a multi-decade saga and The Class well and truly fitted the genre. Written by Erich Segal, the author of Love Story, The Class follows the intertwined fates of five fictional members of the Harvard Class of 1958, culminating with their class reunion in 1983. Described by Publisher’s Weekly as “an absorbing page-turner” The Class is filled with all the tragedies, turmoil and dramatic turning points one might expect from a popular fictional novel of this era.
Danielle Steel’s recipe of romance, suspense and high drama has made her one of the world’s bestselling authors, with current estimates indicating her novels have sold well over 650 million copies around the world. In Family Album, her 18th novel in 12 years, Steel tells the story of Faye Price, from World War II to the present day. Writing in Christian Science Monitor, reviewer Jaye Wilson said “like the heroines in earlier Danielle Steel books, Faye Thayer embodies the ‘fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation” which Tolkien describes as necessary constituents of a good fairy tale. Victorious in her new challenge, Faye seems as well to represent an updated, flip side of the old Horatio Alger characters who inspired the pre-Yuppie generation of men in gray flannel suits (whose sisters were still being silver-spoon fed on the old version of Cinderella’s tale).”
Lucky was the second book in Jackie Collins’ Santangelo series and was described by one critic as “so hot it will have to be printed on asbestos.” These nine novels focus on the Santangelo family, particularly Gino Santangelo, an Italian-American former gangster, and his daughter Lucky. The novels take place from the 1920s to the present day and are set in the world of organised crime. Demonstrating the continuing popularity of the series, in 2014 Collins released a Lucky Santangelo Cookbook featuring “the kind of bold and audacious flavours that characterise Lucky herself.”
Contact began its life in 1979 as a screenplay, co-written by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (the couple would later marry). When development on the film stalled, publisher Simon & Schuster gave Sagan a $2 million advance to convert the story into a novel. At the time, the advance was the largest ever made for a book that had not yet been written. The first print run was 265,000 copies and in the first two years it sold 1.7 million copies. Contact eventually made it to the big screen in 1997, with Jodie Foster starring as Dr. Ellie Arroway.
Danielle Steel’s second listing on 1985’s bestseller list, moved slightly away from her traditional storytelling playground of the family. Instead Secrets focuses on the behind the scenes drama of the making of a prime-time television series (with many readers assuming that the then top-rating Dynasty was Steel’s inspiration). The novel itself was adapted into a television movie in 1992 starring Christopher Plummer and Stephanie Beacham.
It is a rare thing for a short story collection to become a popular bestseller, and the huge popularity of Skeleton Crew demonstrates the size of Stephen King’s fan-base in the mid-1980s. The collection features 22 works; 19 short stories, a novella and two poems. An illustrated limited edition version of the collection was also published in October 1985. It featuring an additional short story, ‘The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson’, which had originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Today this edition is highly collectible with copies selling for over $800.
If Tomorrow Comes is a drama-filled crime novel by the Oscar and Tony-winning writer Sidney Sheldon. Following protagonist Tracy Whitney as she is framed by the Mafia, when this novel was originally reviewed by the New York Times in March 1985, critic Mel Watkins described it as “amusing, fast-paced tale of jet-set skulduggery.” Critics were less kind to the 1986 mini-series adaptation. John J. O’Connor began his review by saying “Here is one possible scenario. Sitting around pool side at the hotel, a bunch of Hollywood sitcom writers decide to amuse themselves by concocting the silliest mini-series plot they can imagine. Falling about with laughter, they turn to an unsmiling gentleman nearby and shout, ‘Sidney, take it, it’s yours, make a million.'”
Gary Edward “Garrison” Keillor is best known as host of public radio show A Prairie Home Companion. A humorous account of life in fictitious Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, this book brought Keillor’s work before a new audience, particularly outside the United States. Lake Wobegon Days begins with a history of town, with the later chapters focusing on the lives of the town’s inhabitants through interlinked short stories. These stories drew heavily from monologues originally prepared for radio and left some readers feeling they were better suited to their original format rather than the page.
Jame A. Michener’s fifteenth novel, Poland, was the second bestselling novel in 1983. For his next book, Texas, Michener’s publisher Random House ordered a first print run of 750,000 copies, the largest in the company’s history. Their faith was rewarded and Texas was an instant hit, with readers again embracing to the author’s recipe for combining real and fictional characters to tell the history of a region.
1. The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
The Mammoth Hunters was the third book in Jean M. Auel six-part Earth’s Children series, which was published between 1980 and 2011. Set in prehistoric Europe, this speculative alternative historical fiction series explores the interactions of Cro-Magnon people with Neanderthals and has sold more than 45 million copies worldwide. Auel’s research for the series was extensive; she joined a survival class to learn how to construct an ice cave, and learned primitive methods of making fire, tanning leather, and knapping stone. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in November 1985, critic Judy Bass described the novel as “audaciously original and ambitious . . . Most novelists would select conventional locales for a tale about beleaguered lovers, but Auel daringly situates Ayla and Jondalar in an epoch popularly linked with comical, stereotyped images like the Flintstones. Today, many people assume that Neanderthals were equally obtuse and undiscerning as the creatures they hunted. Nevertheless, Auel disregarded these potential deterrents and proceeded to craft a compelling story about sentient human beings contending with nature and each other.”
* Data Source: Publishers Weekly