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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz