A little motivation for us baby boomers as we age

Prolific novelist wrote first book in her 60s
by Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010

Belva Plain was a grandmother nearing retirement age when she published her first novel, "Evergreen," in 1978. She went on to establish herself as a prolific writer and a mainstay of popular fiction whose romantic dramas and intergenerational family sagas, though not always beloved by critics, were embraced by millions of readers.

Mrs. Plain, who wrote 20 bestselling novels in her late-life career, died Oct. 12 at age 95 at her home in Short Hills, N.J. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mrs. Plain sold her first short story to Cosmopolitan magazine when she was 25. She went on to raise three children and, until the early 1960s, to write formulaic tales for magazines such as Redbook and Good Housekeeping about wives who contemplate - and ultimately resist - extramarital temptation.

It was not until her children were grown and had begun families of their own that Mrs. Plain produced "Evergreen," a sprawling 700-page rags-to-riches tale about Anna, a beautiful Jewish immigrant who falls in love with one man only to marry another.

"Evergreen," which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks in hardcover and was later made into an NBC miniseries, announced many of what became Mrs. Plain's signature devices: strong heroines, forbidden love and torturous secrets complicating multigenerational family entanglements.

She was particularly interested in countering cliches about Jewish families, she said. "I was tired of the stereotyped Jewish mother whose chicken soup renders her son impotent," she told People magazine in 1978. "I thought it was time to write about the kind of people I know."

With "Random Winds" (1980), the story of a doctor and the three women who haunt his life, and "Eden Burning" (1982), about a wealthy young woman who endures rape only to become pregnant with her attacker's child, Mrs. Plain cemented her reputation as what the Times called "the queen of family-saga writers." More than 25 million copies of her books have been sold.

Desire filled her stories, but Mrs. Plain mostly stayed out of her characters' bedrooms, refusing to write the explicit sex scenes typical of pulp romance novels.

"I think they're vulgar," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1984. Writers have long written love stories, she said, "the greatest in the world, and didn't feel it necessary to include those scenes."

She won praise for research that set her historical novels against a believable backdrop.

Of "Crescent City" (1984), a tale set in New Orleans about a Jewish family during the Civil War, Gay Courter wrote in The Washington Post: "It's all here: moss and mansions, languid afternoons and clandestine evenings, repressed old maids and irresistible quadroons, the glamour and gore of war, chance encounters and missed opportunities."

But critics were not always kind, often singling out flimsy characters, thin plots and unabashed sentimentality. A New York Times review of "Daybreak" (1994), about two babies switched at birth, described "prose well endowed with imagery that has stood the test of time . . . as well as dialogue that suggests background music."

Nevertheless, even high-minded reviewers couldn't keep themselves from turning Mrs. Plain's pages. In the Montreal Gazette, Monique Polak - who criticized "Her Father's House" (2002) for a predictable plot about a high-flying lawyer who marries a beautiful woman without knowing who she really is - also wrote that reading Mrs. Plain's stories "is pure escape - and this is the secret of her success."

"It is like eating a box of drugstore chocolate," Polak wrote. "You know it's not the finest quality, but you can't stop."

Belva Offenberg was born Oct. 9, 1915, in New York. She graduated from Barnard and in 1941 married Irving Plain, an ophthalmologist with whom she raised a family in South Orange, N.J.

Irving Plain died in 1982. In addition to three children, survivors include six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

After her early success as a short-story writer, Mrs. Plain spent more than a decade without writing for publication. Instead, she ran suburban errands and sat through meetings of the local PTA. She was constantly jotting character sketches and scraps of overheard dialogue.

Those scribblings became the basis for "Evergreen," which she later followed with three sequels. Her other books, such as "Whispers" (1993), about a woman who can't escape her abusive husband, dwelled on topics drawn from the news of the day.

She wrote in longhand and maintained a discplined schedule, writing five hours a day, four days a week. She produced a novel about every two years. Her last, "Crossroads," was published in 2008.

Mrs. Plain shrugged off those who said her books were too light to be taken seriously.

"Entertainment," she told The Post in 1980, "is a very valid need."