A comedy of manners (and the lack thereof) played out among the lumpenintelligentia of present-day London, by the English novelist (the Booker-nominated The Essence of the Thing, 1998) who seems best placed to inherit Iris Murdoch’s laurels. Barbara is one of those superlative underachievers who flourish like moss in the damp gloom of the British Isles. A college dropout who had hoped to become a historian of British India, Barbara drifts from odd job to odd job. It’s in this guise that she meets Alex Maclise, a Fleet Street journalist. Alex’s wife Claire, a busy media type, needs someone to mind the kids for a few weeks while she’s away on assignment, and Barbara is happy to step in. That’s mistake number one, and it leads in short order to mistake number two—falling in love with Alex. Naturally, mistake number three—an affair—follows in quick succession. But Barbara is not that easily swept away: She asks Alex to leave Claire for her and, when he refuses, breaks off the romance. Then she meets Andrew Flynn. An old university friend of Alex’s, Andrew is a mathematician only recently returned to Britain from the US, where he divorced his wife and left his children. Lonely and at loose ends, he falls for Barbara and pursues her. Although at first she accepts his advances, being with Andrew only makes her realize how much she prefers Alex. How do you get out of a blind alley? You can start by retracing your steps—which, in Barbara’s case, takes her to India (where her family had lived for generations) in search of enlightenment. No revelation presents itself, but Barbara does manage to get a job out of the whole thing when the BBC decides to make a documentary of her travels. Perhaps a career was all she needed? Witty, sharp, and extremely subtle, St. John manages to dissect modern society with no trace of either sentimentality or bile: a rare treat.