Feel-good malice and futurist mirrors

Hanging Up by Delia Ephron Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99; Delia Ephron's tale of sibling rivalry is more than a bi-coastal Three Sisters, says Christopher Hawtree

I think I can claim that this was the first English novel in which dialogue on the telephone plays a large part," said Evelyn Waugh, 35 years after Vile Bodies. The device's function in 20th-century literature has yet to receive full study, as does another question: how does Armistead Maupin find time for his own work in between supplying benisons for the dust jackets of everybody else's books? Such is his enthusiasm for this first, telephone-driven novel by Delia Ephron, sister of Norah, that he has come up with separate words of praise for the front and back flaps.

His advice to curl up with it "but unplug the phone first" is not misplaced. This tale of three sisters - Eve, Georgia and Madeleine Mozell - might not give Chekhov a run for his money, but certainly shows that getting to a city (in this case, two cities) does not make relationships any less vexing. Hanging Up not only switches between the West Coast and New York but also, and often for the briefest of moments, cuts to and fro in time. (Doubtless the movie to be made by Norah will straighten this out and dull the effect.) One never feels lost in this narrative of sibling rivalry which began with the girls' upbringing in a household whose patriarch was a manic-depressive radio scriptwriter and such an alcoholic that his wife upped and left them all to it.

She is now somewhere in the backwoods as events come to a climax with the father, Lou's, increasing decay, incarceration and imminent death. Eve, outwardly the most equable of the sisters, narrates all this amid the onset of turmoil from which she does not prove immune. Not only has her son smashed the motor-car into an Iranian's, but the victim looks as if he thinks it unethical to settle the matter without a premium- hiking claim on the insurance company - a situation compounded by the fellow's malapropisms and by enlisting his own mother's help.

Such moments - all these disembodied, omnipresent voices - have Eve looking in the mirror and, at 44, finding that "these sideways, unexpected encounters are the most jarring, these candid glimpses when I have not taken time to prepare my face to be seen and my brain to see it... I look the way I always have, but the face of the future is threatening to take over. I have two faces in one, a non-returnable bargain."

In New York, meanwhile, Georgia is preoccupied with her glossy magazine's anniversary issue (she has the bold stroke of putting her own face on the cover - now there's a tip for the newly-transplanted Glenda Bailey if she wants to make a wow of Marie Claire in Manhattan). Georgia's father is dying, but she has first to consider the stop-press matter of eggplant recipes - are they passe? - before she can fly back. As for Madeleine, she is pregnant, a fork in the road for any soap actress.

As with Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge, it is tempting to wonder how much all this has in common with the Ephron family history - no blushing violets, they. One is on safer ground in saying that Hanging Up does not go in with a scalpel but has that American quality of feel-good malice - the light, sassy wit, ear for talk and bemused observation that Henry Ephron brought to the plays and movie scripts he wrote with his wife, Phoebe. High time that somebody here issued his account of those years, We Thought We Could Do Anything.

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