Lily-Josephine introduces the traditional Snow White characters - good mother, wicked stepmother, ousted orphan - and gives appropriately loaded names. A distressed maiden is rescued by Sir Gallant, the ancestral pile is called the Prospect. But Saunders plays with the conventions she's using. Sir Gallant is a hopeless bounder and the Prospect threatens to vanish.
The book opens in 1980 in Devon, when three elderly half-sisters who'd expected to inherit millions discover, after a lunch of cold quiche, that everything except a couple of paintings and pounds 2,428.14 each has gone to the offspring of their mysterious stepsister, Lily-Josephine. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time through three generations, until the various threads are knotted in 1997.
First we meet the enchantress Sidonia. Born to stuffy Edwardian parents, she's soon a self-styled enigma who wears diaphanous robes and flings herself about to Wagner while other girls learn to foxtrot. Freudian readings have it that the psychological function of a wicked stepmother is to allow us to vent anger on the separated bad mother while loving without reservation the (usually dead) good mother. Sidonia is an archetypal wicked stepmother, and she's a rotten natural mother as well. During exotic travels - from Poona to Paris to Bloomsbury - she carelessly produces three daughters by different fathers, then creates sibling rivalry to her own advantage. The eldest, Primmy, is doomed to make an excellent geriatric nurse. And for her old age, Sidonia will need cash which is where besotted Ralph comes in with his fortune, idyllic country seat and tomboy daughter, Lily- Josephine, who is as beautiful as the sun.
By now WWII is under way. A volunteers' trip by boat to help at Dunkirk is treated with appropriate solemnity, but Saunders finds humour too. One love scene develops in a bombed-out cafe over thick brown tea and a Spam sandwich. The war throws urbanite Sidonia and her daughters into the rural Prospect with stepdaughter Lily-Josephine whose goodness is set off by mud-streaked knees, and whose propensity to love is tempered by a proper sense of outrage when she is betrayed. Lily is not feebly banished but drives off in a decrepit van, which runs out of petrol near a woodland glade, wherein lies a house inhabited not by dwarves but the all-male Randall family, who keep owls, don't mind a bit that she burns the macaroni cheese, and are, with only one exception, exceedingly hunky. The potential for sex is enormous: no lying back thinking of England, either.
Saunders's women have clitorises and multiple orgasms. Whilst presenting love as the great redeemer, she is clear that it need not come in the standard monogamous, heterosexual format. There's incest, illegal homosexual love, bigamy. Nice ironic touches include having a "vigorous lesbian", Daphne, as a fairy Godmother.
As she did in her 1993 novel Night Shall Overtake Us, Saunders's mixes familiar best-seller ingredients - sex, death love, war - and seasons well with knowing twists and quirky insights. Lily-Josephine is firmly at the posh end of the popular fiction genre.