Despite a genuinely alluring gimmick and that reliably brisk Wain style, there simply isn't enough real substance or feeling here to keep this relatively hefty novel from seeming terribly thin. The gimmick: the long first chapter begins the story of outdoorsy, divorced Gus Howkins, who goes canoeing in the Welsh wilderness; rescues a mysterious, zonked-out lady from a drowning car; beds her; loses her; and trails her to London. . . but--the second chapter shakes us up by shifting to Giles Hermitage, the novelist who's writing that novel about Gus that we've been reading. Thereafter, the Giles and Gus chapters alternate, and we're allowed to see--especially when Giles writes two different endings to Gus' story--the influence of Giles' changing life upon the shaping of his characters' lives. A framework brimming with potential--but it's mostly unrealized. Gus' story (involving his mystery lady's crude TV-star husband, her crooked brother, a fake kidnap, and much romantic angst) is hardly worth the fuss, especially once we know it's not ""real."" Giles is more interesting, especially when he is stirred from his melancholy stupor (his longtime girlfriend has deserted him) by a request from a devoted fan: she's an elderly neighbor lady dying of cancer, and she urges Giles to visit, talk, and tell her about his current writing; but her real goal is revealed when she hysterically begs Giles to immortalize the story of her desertion by an unloving husband now living in Canada. Unfortunately, however, this promising premise is soon overshadowed by Giles' murky, mostly sexual relationship with the dying woman's acerbic, promiscuous, but religious daughter. (She explains her urge for sex with Giles just after her mother dies: ""I made my peace with God first, and with your prick afterwards. That's the life of a religious woman."") True, all of Wain's wheels here turn one way or another around the question of male-female relationships; but, rather than illuminating anything, the busy parallel plottings just seem to be covering up for Wain's inability to draw any honest emotion--or a single believable female--out of this basically familiar material.