FICTION : FINE THINGS by Danielle Steel (Delacorte: $18.95; 396 pp.).

The author's legion of female fans may be unsettled by her use of a male protagonist. "Fine Things" is San Francisco department store executive Bernard Fine's love story, and for 142 pages, it is indeed nothing but fine. But when disaster finally strikes, there is plenty to deal with: cancer, custody battles, kidnaping and widowhood.

Word by word, the book is rough reading. Danielle Steel's sentences either run on and on haphazardly, or they veer off in the middle with startling non sequiturs. For instance, when comparing dormitory rooms, she writes: "It was larger and more comfortable and he had two desks, and she stared at the ring in the open box on his." Words are repeated carelessly (at one point never appears four times within three lines). And her sentences are sprinkled with more dots than a measles ward . . . at the end of a line of dialogue . . . right in the middle to show agitation . . . wherever the writer paused in her dictation, it seems. But while many writers form more elegant sentences, few can match Steel's knack for creating lovable characters who hold reader interest. In the case of a soapy Steel novel, the total is definitely better than the sum of its parts.

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