Minutely observed and detailed analyses of both an endangered marriage and an unfulfilling affair dominate this witty, assured fourth novel from the Booker-nominated British author (A Stairway to Paradise, 1999, etc.).
Television director Simon Beaufort seems to have it all: a thriving (if artistically frustrating) career, a beautiful and devoted wife, Flora, and three delightful children. But his family goes on a brief holiday in France, and Simon encounters—and falls hard for—Gillian Selkirk, a poised accountant who offers him splendiferous sex without commitment (she prefers “autonomy”). Flora, vaguely sensing some absence in her life, flirts, as it were, with Catholicism—and St. John skillfully plays off Simon’s infidelity and guilt against what he labels his wife’s “harmless delusion”—as the net around Simon tightens, and a coincidental near-meeting with Flora’s old friend Lydia threatens the artificial double world he has built for himself. What one wants to call this story’s hit-and-run structure—a breathlessly readable succession of very short chapters that feature sparkling and suggestive dialogue—perfectly conveys the fragmented and puzzling character of even stable long-term relationships, and brings into amazingly vivid focus the bright personalities of (the really unexceptionable) Flora and her clever, inquisitive kids (both young adolescent Janey and solemn five-year-old Thomas are marvelous creations)—all the while making something equally risible, contemptible, and heartbreaking out of Simon’s confused yearnings to become both a satisfactory lover and a better husband and father. This novel’s ethical and narrative judiciousness may be inferred from just two of the many fortuitous near-aphorisms with which its pages fortuitously abound: “Sex, after all, is a lot more than it’s cracked up to be,” and “There’s a lot to be said for the rules.”
A brilliant entertainment, and one of the few contemporary novels savvy enough to treat religious faith both seriously and comically. Put this one on the shelf not far from Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark: Madeleine St. John is of their company.