Book review: Frissons, foursomes and falling in love

A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank Viking pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
We remember our past loves as a series of stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. Holidays, favourite foods and films, activities, even jokes become associated with particular people as we find ourselves swayed by their interests and changed because of them. That is why the construction of Melissa Bank's memorable first novel is so brilliant - a series of linked short stories about the men in Jane's life, beginning with the sexual dawning of adolescence and ending with Mr Right. With each story, and each man Jane discovers painful truths about relationships - the hurt, loneliness, jealousies and ghastly sexual frissons that can take place within a foursome on holiday when her boyfriend flirts shamelessly with his ex-lover. When Jane telephones her brother and he tells her that the best men are attracted to other women, she replies, "More proof of how unprepared I am to love anyone."

Then there is the fit young romantic who sees her through breast cancer but calls her "honey" rather than by her real name and proposes by saying "I think I can marry you now" rather than do you want me? And then there is Archie, adorable Archie, an alcoholic diabetic, 28 years older and a successful publisher. Their relationship is an intellectual marriage of wit and anecdote rather than sexual passion. He is impotent and sex is largely "manual labour". But they have tender and deeply touching times together, discovering old films, searching for trinkets in fleamarkets and making one another laugh, until she discovers deceit and betrayal - her father has been dying of leukaemia for the past nine years and Archie has been drinking secretly all along. She needs a stable man.

When she has almost given up hope of ever finding anyone, she meets Robert at her best friend's wedding. Terrified of putting a foot wrong, she follows the advice of a book called How To Meet And Marry Mr Right, tries to play it cool by picking up all sorts of men she doesn't really want, and as a result almost loses Robert because he feels she's not the wonderfully witty girl he fell in love with. It's a hilarious and deliciously romantic end to one of the most enjoyable and memorable debuts of the year as Jane learns finally how to be true to herself.

Jane is no Bridget Jones - she is feistier, wittier and utterly lovable with an ability to see through to the hearts of others. Her observations of other peoples' idiosyncrasies made me laugh out loud with recognition, (her brother eats corn-on-the-cob typewriter style: "he'd tap the cob at the end of a row and ding") and she has the courage to say what most of us barely dare think. When she is introduced to her boyfriend's ex- girlfriend Bella on holiday, Bella patronises her instantly by calling her by her childhood name Janie as she kisses her affectionately on both cheeks as if she has known her all her life. "I am so thrown by her warmth that I call her `Belly'."

I only have one small criticism which is in a way a tribute to the strength of Melissa Bank's character. One small short story at the centre of the novel moves away from Jane to a dinner party in the flat beneath her and is superfluous, for as soon as we lose Jane's powerful, intoxicating voice I lost interest entirely. But this is a minor quibble, for these are brilliant, memorable short stories that owe more to Chekhov and Lorrie Moore than anything Bridget Jones can offer, as they capture the intense ambivalence of love for modern women as we try to marry the needs of others with ourselves.

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