A realistic rector's wife

The Benefits of Passion by Catherine Fox, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16

Far from encouraging feelings of dread, invitations to vicarage tea-parties in Gateshead must be highly prized - at least in the parish where Catherine Fox's husband is vicar. If she serves up the same mixture of wit, charm, perception and raunch in her sitting-room as she does in her prose, they must be the best parties in town.

Annie, the engaging heroine of her second novel, is a 30-something ordinand, scarred by her dour non-conformist background, training at an evangelical theological college in a thinly veiled Durham. Coverdale Hall could not be more different from the Anglo-Catholic hothouse of A N Wilson's Unguarded Hours, and Fox's first achievement is to sustain interest in a group of characters with such fundamentalist views.

The best (former midwife Muriel and 50-something Ted) are worthy but dull; the worst (ex-army officer Edward) is full of passionate intensity. Fox is excellent at capturing the stolid bigotry of Edward, a man for whom bible-bashing is little different from square-bashing, who believes that imagination is a product of the Fall, and who uses the typical evangelical trick of substituting alliteration for logic, as when dividing sermons into sections such as "Prayer, Praise and Perseverance".

Annie is an alien in this world. While her study group discusses "God and Calling", she fantasises about having sex with an entire rugby team. Having been celibate for 11 years, her libido is panting at the leash. Indeed, she pictures it as Libby, a dog on heat (and Fox obtains much comic mileage when she finally takes it for a walk). She attempts to ease her frustrations by secretly writing cassock-ripping romantic fiction.

Her heroine, Isabella, has "all the directness Annie lacked". She is cat to Annie's mouse, and, in turn, she plays cat and mouse with a handsome ordinand she meets in Cambridge. Their crazy courtship has all the energy and excitement of a classic Hollywood comedy.

Fox handles the different fictional modes with great aplomb, showing the many uses to which Annie puts her writing. At times, she transmutes experience without realising, as when she meets a gynaecologist whom she has inadvertently used as the model for Barney. At others, she steals from her friends to give to her characters. At her most desperate, writing becomes a means of revenge, as when she decides to put a stunning-looking hostess in her next book "and give her peptic ulcers".

The fictional parallels become more complex once Annie meets Will, a doctor-friend of Edward's, and behaves with a passion that was previously the preserve of Isabella. An ordinand to her finger-tips, she is racked by guilt. She even prays that the Second Coming will occur to prevent their sleeping together.

The Benefits of Passion is a delightful novel: funny, life-enhancing and humane. Its faults lie in a certain lack of weight: for all Annie's doubts, there is no serious theological debate; nor any real sense of the darkness that must be the testing-ground of faith. Some of the men come straight from stock. Will and Barney, in particular, are little more than dashing hunks.

Knowing nothing of Catherine Fox but her press release, it is impossible not to identify her, in part, with her fiction. One scene, where Isabella, now married to a curate, serves an obscenely shaped boeuf wellington to a bishop and his wife, only makes sense if Fox is showing the same propensity for fictional revenge as her central character. But who cares, when it is the funniest meal graced by an episcopal personage since Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus? Above all, she displays a genuine ability to make religion palatable for a secular age. Forget The Rector's Wife; this is the real thing.

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