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.