Bravely, Drabble's late fiction has never been scared off from attempting social chronicle as well as individual psychological dry-point. She's back at an enormously large canvas now in a book that opens with a London New Year's Eve party in 1980, a work that contains multitudes of couples and singles but which focuses on three close friends, each representative of intelligent London women of the moment. Divorces, liaisons, dogged marriages thread their way through a British social fabric that shockingly frays. One woman, Liz Headleand, finds her marriage to TV producer Charles dying to the beat of Charles' increasingly Thatcherite views. But another of the friend-trio, Alix Bowen, a teacher (with her husband) in the social-welfare network, Finds disillusion, liberal entropy, as pervasive as any Tory heartlessness. The third friend, Esther Breuer, an art historian, the most purely aesthetic of the three, mirrors art's failure of responsibility by being on the permanent verge of giving up on London altogether and moving to Italy. Drabble's great skill is to portray personal defeats and holding-actions--while the characters themselves go about their days unaware of the greater shaping to which they're subject. But the ambition to give us the epoch, small and large, has begun to stretch Drabble thin, and there's more large event here than pearl-like epiphany (""The steel strike continues, a bitter prelude to the miner's strike that will follow. Class rhetoric flourishes. Long-cherished notions of progress are inspected, exposed, left out to die in the cold. Survival of the fittest seems to be the new-old doctrine. Unemployment rises steadily. . .""). This urge to catalogue spills over unhappily into Drabble's prose style elsewhere as well. Sentences are chocked with repetitious adjectives, superfluous clauses--and though there's a last-ditch effort to affix a collar of personal re-identification on all three characters, you feel that they've been draft horses pulling a huge float of sociological demonstration. A book that's more smart than smarting, and where formula begins to show its weary face.