The publishers say ""Middle-aged readers who have missed the pleasure of identity in recent fiction will find themselves enjoying immediate recognition of 'the friends'."" Will they? Miss McNeill's novel is about as comforting as the early morning face in the mirror, or as she puts it: ""It shouldn't happen like this, this fading, creasing, ageing, dulling, thickening"" -- all that inadmissible, tell-tale evidence. Her novel deals with a small circle in Belfast and particularly Sarah, a ""fossilized schoolgirl"" at 52, whose nondescript appearance matches her featureless, untenanted life-- except for Helen, the only person she loves; then there's Helen, who runs a flower shop, who has lost her husband and her child and now lives on the artificial blooms of short affairs; Addie who writes ""little pieces"" but exists in great boredom with her husband; Maurice, who at 56, faces uneasy parenthood for the first time -- ""the result of habit and accident""; and so it goes... As one of them says-- ""Middle-age is odd. We're not a problem like the young or the very old. No one is exercised about our physical comfort or our morals."" In fact, it's all too dispiriting for words-- even though Miss McNeill's are those of a good writer with an unaccommodating sense of life as it is. She just has refused to touch it up in any way.