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`MESSAGE FROM NAM’ FAILS ON ALL FRONTS

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"Message From Nam," Steel's 25th romance novel, relates the ultramelodramatic story of blond, beautiful Paxton Andrews. She's a headstrong woman, we're reminded more than once, whose life takes adventurous turns after Paxton leaves her hometown of Savannah, Ga., to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

She encounters "tall, dark and handsome" strangers and has passionate affairs with three manly soldiers. But she becomes a war victim when her first two boyfriends pay the ultimate price in Vietnam, and the Viet Cong capture the third.The book fails miserably in every way. For one thing, Steel does not come close to evoking any sense of place. The story is set mainly in Savannah, Berkeley and Saigon. But you get no feel for the physical locations. The way Steel works, these places may as well be Saskatoon, Boston and Sarawak.

The characters that inhabit these non-places have nothing to do with real life. They are cartoon cutouts who speak a dialogue that went out with hoop skirts. The plot is ridiculously implausible: Our heroine sees more action in Vietnam than a squad of real grunts did. Then she miraculously finds her boyfriend in Saigon the day before the city falls to the communists.

"He had survived by wiles and horrors she couldn't have dared to think of," Steel gushes. "And now, by sheer miracle, by nothing more than chance, or the hand of God, he had found her." Within minutes of their unbelievable chance meeting, the lovers board one of the last helicopters out of Saigon.

Steel's knowledge of the war would barely earn a passing grade in a high school freshman history class. She's figured out the difference between an M-16 and an AK-47 and some other military facts. But a little knowledge is dangerous. I counted at least 11 mistakes of fact involving the military and Vietnam.

Steel also fails miserably in her depiction of Vietnam veterans, a group she refers to several times with pity-dripping condescension. Here's one of her wrongheaded generalizations: "They came back but they didn't want to go home, they didn't know where to go or what to do, or what would happen when they got there."

Here's a message to Danielle Steel from one of the many Vietnam veterans who definitely wanted to come home and who had a pretty good idea what to do when he got here: Your Vietnam novel may have been written with the best of intentions, but it has as much to do with real life as your grossly inaccurate statement about all vets. Next time, stick to your old bodice-ripping format.