BOOK REVIEW / The art of coarse litrutshire: Natasha Walter on the addictive and unhealthy habits indulged in Jilly Cooper's new story of lust and misery. 'The Man who made Husbands Jealous' - Jilly Cooper: Bantam, 15.99 pounds

THE MAN Who Made Husbands Jealous is set in a place called, of all things, Rutshire; so I suppose we have to call the book litrutshire. After all, Jilly Cooper's plunkety childish diction bears the same relationship to the real thing as a Hello] interview does to good journalism. Without richness or resonance, irony or imagery, it's always dully tasteless in different ways - Mothers Pride bread interspersed with candyfloss and vanilla fudge, and so kitsch it pastiches itself.

Our hero, Lysander, we learn in the first paragraph, is 'heart-stoppingly handsome, wildly affectionate, with a wall-to-wall smile that withered women'. The huge (nearly 600 pages) meal Cooper offers of this bland, frothy gunk is sickening, tedious - and addictive. Over the first few pages, the door clangs shut on a tiny world: bitchy, prejudiced, its parameters of taste drawn from fashion, interior decoration and soft porn magazines, its characters from a range of tabloid figures. At its best, entering that kind of closed environment can enable a cathartic reach into various secret, funny obsessions. But this is a very different experience, in which the closeness is swiftly transformed into a painful claustrophobia.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around that heart-stoppingly handsome chap, Lysander Hawksley, a puppyish boy who looks like a heartbreaker, but is in fact a saddie still searching desperately for a mother. Employed by various hard-done by women as an escort/gigolo/personal fitness trainer, Lysander always brings their erring husbands panting back in jealousy, until he finally captures the heart of the Cinderella of the bunch, in whom he knows he will have a mother for life.

It sounds all very sweet and silly, but it's not. Although the original plan may have conveyed a lightweight escapism, Cooper has much more important subjects than the mere getting of a happy ending. The key-note of the book is embarrassment, particularly the embarrassment of women, who are let down always, at every turn, by their bodies. Chauvinists who open this book will be relieved to find there is no such thing as a confident female.

The first, exquisite woman Lysander consoles, with her 'Tio Pepe' eyes and long, brown legs, confesses to him that her husband hates her for being too thin, 'like an ironing board with two buttons sewn on to tell you which the front is', and needs persuading to reveal her small breasts. The second, on the other hand, being a little larger, must be put through a punishing regime of cross-country runs and clear soup, laxatives and kiwi fruits, before she gets down to eight stone and beds Lysander (this time, afraid of revealing her stretchmarks), or wins back her husband. The third, being a little older, loves her fling with Lysander (although this time she's terrified that her internal muscles won't be tight enough) until she goes to a party with him and looks in the mirror to see 'beside that smooth fresh face, she looked like a raddled old tart of 100. Her heavy make-up sank into the lines round her mouth, and emphasised the weary red-veined eyes, and when she rubbed away a blob of mascara, the skin stayed pleated.'

Although these books are written from the point of view of, and for, a female world, what friendship - let alone sisterhood - can develop in such a tortured environment? The men in Rutshire have friends, but the women just have yardsticks to beat themselves with. Even the enumeration of fashions, usually one of the frothiest, most charming aspects of women's fiction, takes on a remonstrative force. Excess make-up, unwashed hair, too-tight skirts, over-decollete dresses - Cooper notes them all coldly, and serves up chilly advice to her would-be husband keepers: 'Don't buy anything strapless or sleeveless. You're too thin at the moment.' 'Get that ghastly tight perm cut off' and so on.

No escapism here: the fear - fear of being a woman, fear of growing old, fear of loneliness - is too intense, and only laid to rest by absolute dedication to the pursuit of beauty, and occasionally the gift of male desire. Georgie sleeps once with Lysander and her 'life changed . . . her confidence flooded back. She started looking sensational.' But then Lysander moves on . . .

At times it seems that Cooper is writing from her own, much- publicised, experiences of unexpected discovery of adultery. She makes male infidelity, with its corollary in female despair, the absolute model for modern marriage - sometimes as a general hum in the background, sometimes a sudden plunge into desperate realisation - and infuses it with a heartfelt, self-abasing misery that is immensely painful to read. This is less a book to take to a quiet beach, more as company for a quiet suicide.

The sexuality that bubbles through the book is hardly compelling: every scene is a dull re-run of an old set-up, pushing and pulling the dogs through the hoops again. Some of them - in jacuzzis, by pools, on peach four-posters - are reminiscent of soft porn videos; others - involving bizarre punishment scenarios, voyeurs and close-up photography - get a little bit harder. 'Larky' or 'utterly bent' are the only two notes on the sexual scale that Cooper knows how to play. These quick encounters usually centre on Lysander, a tart with a heart of gold, and fuse the heartless, performance-oriented world of male pornography with the vulnerable, abasing world of traditional female sexuality to get the worst of both worlds, an endless, frenetic copulating in which the heart is involved, but always broken.

So although Cooper's is in some ways a fantasy world, where the sun shines and the champagne corks pop and Lysander always wins at polo, it is a fantasy world where everyone is even more miserable than in real life. Like the joy so many people take in imagining the fevered anguish of the miserable royal marriage, no doubt many read Jilly Cooper to reassure themselves that kind hearts are better than coronets, or that money can't buy happiness, or whatever. After all, in Rutshire women weep without ceasing for their philandering husbands, whereas we know that in contemporary Britain divorced women report greater health and happiness than their infelicitous counterparts.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?