All's Well That Ends

Books have one thing over telenovellas: At least you can leaf through them to read the end ahead of time

"He was enchanting, and she could not resist him. She wanted to believe him, all of her, but she knew that sooner or later, reality would replace the fantasy, and it all would blow up in her face again. She was not ready for it yet."

This is a quote from page 81 of a book entitled "Touching Happiness" (Yedioth Ahronoth publishing and Darset productions), of which 28,000 copies have been sold to date. Written by Sherry Shein, the book is based on the Hebrew telenovella of the same name, which is broadcast every day on the local soap-opera channel (Viva).

"Touching Happiness" has even made it to the top of the Israeli best-seller list. The stars of the telenovella were almost crushed by enthusiastic fans during Hebrew Book Week. That, in itself, is an interesting example of reality being replaced by fantasy: The fans did not differentiate between the characters and the actors, and demanded that the heroes of the book sign their copies.

How did we stoop to the level, I heard voices asking, at which such a book - not even a book, but a spin-off from a TV series - tops the best-seller list? What sort of book did they expect would top the list? A best-seller is a book that sells fast, and best-seller lists all over the world are full of books of the "Touching Happiness" kind. One can even claim that the lists and such books are made for each other.

But having said that, I could not but be cheered by the fact that the fans needed a book to reinforce and confirm their pleasure with the TV series. They enjoyed watching it, but wanted the printed word to certify that their pleasure was for real. It was a vote of confidence in a book as such.

I do not delude myself: I know that many of the 28,000 buyers needed the book only to find out how it will end. The last chapter is to be screened this coming Sunday, and then all will know if Ofra - the beautiful but poor (and golden-hearted) heroine will live happily ever after with Nadav, the rich but unhappy hero, who at the time of writing, is still married to the barren and mean Irit.

In the last chapter, all the problems in the sub-plots will be resolved as well, those involving the characters' many brothers and sisters. Reality will finally replace fantasy. Let us hope we are all prepared for it.

There is another advantage of a book over plots screened on TV. A soap opera is a never-ending series of chapters, filmed and screened as long as there is an audience that is still interested. (Incidentally, they are called "soap operas" because household products manufacturer Proctor & Gamble sponsored them in the early days of American TV.) A telenovella is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. On TV, you cannot turn pages faster and check the ending.

His, hers and theirs

In a survey conducted recently in Israel, 5 percent of the respondents admitted that they first check the ending of the book before they embark on reading it. Only 1 percent of French readers admitted to the same. But I heard from bookstores that in the case of "Touching Happiness," people entered the shop, leafed to the ending of the book and left - without buying it.

As I am not in the habit of writing about books without having read them, I read "Touching Happiness" from cover to cover and even watched some of the televised episodes (20:15 every day on Channel 10, and reruns of five episodes on Saturday). It is indeed a story involving the basic ingredients of human relationships: It is a story of his and hers - and of his and her brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. And it is indeed a rather inferior product of the human imagination, be it on screen or on the page.

It looks as if the book was concocted for those who want to know the ending (i.e., those who do not know that happy endings are in any case a part of the genre). And, indeed, as the book rushes toward the final pages, the writing gets laconic and businesslike, even telegraphic.

Here is a sample. Yamit (it's too complicated to explain who she is) was raped by Itcho (ditto), and now she confronts him, hoping that he will admit to the crime: "In the beginning, it looked like her plan was successful. Itcho admitted to everything, but suspected that Yamit was trying to play a trick on him. He grabbed her bag and emptied it. A small tape recorder fell out. Itcho was so angry that he almost raped her again."

This book-shaped product made its way to the best-seller list, for a short visit: It departed after a mere eight-week stint, even before the final episode of the series was broadcast.

To those who may be concerned, it did not push other, more literary novels from the best-seller list. Literary novels should not even aspire to be on that list, and if they are on it, they are the exception rather than the rule. If "Touching Happiness" threatens the survival of other (better?) books on the list, the endangered species are ultimately the other local best-sellers - representing the relatively new phenomenon in Israel (although it exists all over the world) of books written for the entertainment of their readers only.

"Touching Happiness" is proof positive that you may succeed in selling a book which consists of even fewer of the best-seller ingredients than the usual best-seller. And there are many (at least 28,000) readers who will buy and read it, and even enjoy it. This is the reality, not the fantasy, of the best-seller list.