BOOK REVIEW / Several lifestyles in search of a character: Consequences by Helen Muir: Simon & Schuster pounds 15.99

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SET in the well-to-do world of contemporary media, Helen Muir's novel is a mildly entertaining satire of social mores. Action begins at a 'singles' dance where Joy, in her fifties, meets spivvy, smooth Clive ('I'll take you to dins at my super local restaurant'); Ruth meets older, arty Leonard; Leonard, while dancing, injures a transvestite. The novel is elegantly constructed: from these three events the consequences, pace the title, result: two affairs, one court case and a child.

Muir's fictional couples, however, turn out to be incompatible. Ruth fantasises that Leonard will provide her with wealth and status, when Leonard has no intention of doing so. Joy calculates that Clive wishes to propose marriage, when in fact he's keen on 'spicy' partner-swopping. No romantic, Muir is attempting to show reality, all grey and flawed, as each partner is shown to have unreal ideas about the other. Consequences has pretensions to amorous and psychological wisdom.

But Muir's characterisation is novelettish. Leonard Derbyshire is an arty outsider, whose bohemian nature is in his genes: 'From his father, who was a gipsy, he'd inherited the dark curls and tough brooding air of the fairground.' Ruth, by contrast, is the socially calculating girl, who sees Leonard as a marriage possibility: 'Yes, Leonard Derbyshire would have the lifestyle, as the winner of Academy Awards, to which she had become accustomed.' Hard on the heels of such formulae come the psychological diagnoses, so flat and thorough the reader feels left with an X-ray instead of a character.

There are good and funny moments in Consequences. Conroy Sweeting ('Sweetie'), a magazine editor, is a nice portrait of media pomposity and pretension; and when Sweetie raises his eyes to heaven, loftily composing his magazine article, Muir yanks him down to earth: 'Then a girl drove a pram into the back of his leg and he stood in a pile of rotting hamburger and sick.' But there is something circular and self-defeating about this poking fun at media folk. When Muir catalogues the 'limed wood table' and the Richard Long print in Ruth's assiduously fashionable flat, it is journalistic shorthand for character: supply the lifestyle, and you've got the person.