Books: A woman not much taken with adultery

Elisa Segrave comes to admire a plain tale of passion and its price
A Stairway

to Paradise

by Madeleine St John

Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99, 185pp

MADELEINE ST JOHN'S novel The Essence Of the Thing, about an unmarried young couple breaking up, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize of 1997. This new book is more complex but deals once again with the domestic side of life. It is about two people, one of them married, who suddenly fall in love. Barbara, the heroine, works as a mother's help, mostly in north London houses belonging to professional couples.

The story begins informally with the three main characters, Barbara, Andrew, and Alex, going home in Alex's car after a party. Andrew is recently divorced. He has returned to London alone after 10 years, having had to leave his small daughter with his ex-wife in America. He has met Barbara that evening and fallen for her. Alex, Andrew's old friend and a married journalist, has already fallen for Barbara - but no one knows except Barbara.

Madeleine St John writes "slice of life" novels with a vengeance. Do people really speak in such awkward, banal sentences? Probably. At first I found the jagged dialogue - and the coyness of some of the love scenes - often made me wince: "they drifted and soared through another, occult universe contingent on this one (or is this one on that?)". This, describing sex between Alex and Barbara, is from the book's worst-written paragraph.

However, I decided that the clumsy dialogue signified that the characters were trying too hard to say what they meant. That, and the often ungainly prose, began to grow on me; I felt that the very awkwardness denoted sincerity. I began to admire the way that the depiction of those well-worn themes - love and adultery - rang true. Also, the characters are so genuinely nice. Without lecturing or making excuses, the author manages to show, rather brilliantly, how easy it is to fall in love without having the least intention of doing so.

Her lack of cynicism also comes as a relief. The men are not depicted as selfish bastards, although I did note how often Barbara was described by her male admirers as a "big brown girl", "big velvety Barbara", and so on. I sometimes wished that the author had made her more complex. However, perhaps St John is simply being accurate about middle-aged men. In any case, what Barbara lacks in complexity, she makes up for in goodness.

Three-quarters of the way through, Barbara discusses their predicament with her lover, Alex, whom she must renounce because he is married. "`All there is in the end,' she said, `is - is - simply trying to keep one's hands clean - and it's difficult'." Alex answers that "whatever real connection one can manage to have with another soul - that's the only thing one can hope for. And you're turning your back on it ... for the sake of a mere scruple".

"It isn't `mere'. And we couldn't have a `real connection' as you put it, as long as this scruple exists." This, in a nutshell, is what this book is about.

I particularly liked the funny, tender yet unsentimental way she writes about children. The novels even ends with a conversation between two children, leaving an open door; the possibility of a new life.

My last little complaint is that the text is sprinkled with unnecessary French words and phrases, perhaps in order to make the character or author appear sophisticated. But this is a mistake; its very unpretentiousness is what makes this book work.