BOOK REVIEW / Suburbia's lonely hearts club band

Emma Hagestadt enjoys a spooky tale of mating rituals and dating nightm ares; Dance with Me by Lousie Doughty Simon and Schuster, pounds 9.99

Louise Doughty writes about people who don't usually get written about. Young women who commute in from London's less salubrious suburbs (Catford, Burnt Oak, East Barnet) who understand the inner workings of the office PC, and buy their earrings at Next. Her heroines are self-employed information consultants who surf the Internet and are always home in time for Brookside.

First there's Bet. She's 27, prone to cystitis and "as promiscuous as Hell". Having lost her boyfriend, Peter (who suffered a head-on collision on the Watford by-pass three weeks after their first date), she's learning to be single again. Iris is a paler version of Bet. She spends her weekends not in strange men's beds but moping in local cafes, worrying that she should be doing the hoovering instead. Her ex-boyfriend (also Peter) isn't dead, just unfaithful.

Just as you're wising up to Doughty's game, a third heroine pops up. Another Iris. This Iris has a small child (possibly Peter's), and lives alone in pebble-dashed splendour in Burnt Oak.

Doughty's intention gradually become clearer. Bet and Iris are ghostly imitations of each other, and before their story is over some supernatural antics are staged in spooky basements and badly-lit attics. But through all the smokescreens Doughty throws up, one thing is apparent: all the Irises and Bet are heading for a breakdown.

While it can't be said that dissociation is an original theme for a female novelist, Doughty gives the old chestnut a new spin, and goes on to monitor the lonesome hearts and sexual drives of twentysomething Londoners like no one else around. Every bit as skilled as her contemporaries, Alain de Botton and Julie Myerson, her writing has a pessimistic edge which makes her books all the funnier.

Dance with Me is a painfully accurate record of mating rituals and dating nightmares. Iris's evenings spent playing the part of the "new" girl-friend with Peter's best friends, Alex and Sophie (a horribly smug couple "as plump and blonde" as their soft furnishings) will ring bells; as will Bet's night with Bill, a man who after a meal at the Taj Mahal displays himself (one part in particular) with "the kind of self-regard which women have knocked out of them by the age of six."

But it's when it comes to loneliness that Doughty is at her best. There's a touching moment in the Cittie of Yorke pub, when Iris and her old friend George finally acknowledge that that no spark will ever fly between them. A poignant scene, particularly given the book's conclusion that being alone is enough to drive you mad.

Less ambitious than Doughty's previous novel, Crazy Paving, Dance with Me is not without its eccentricities. For all its revelling in the world of Sainsbury's aisles and Holborn wine bars it is, after all, a novel about delusions - particularly the kind women have about men.

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