Kissing love goodbye

Lucasta Miller enjoys a sentimental education; Zoe Trope by Amanda Prantera, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

Those who have already met Amanda Prantera's heroine in Proto Zoe will have been looking forward to finding out how that engaging child would grow up. You don't have to read the earlier book, though, to be able to enjoy this next instalment of Zoe's sentimental education, in which she finds herself ready for love, but serially disappointed by what the male sex has to offer.

The novel is constructed as a series of bite-sized chunks, one chapter in turn for each of the men in Zoe's life, beginning with the prototype - her father - and ending with a tantalising glimpse of Mr Right. Narrated by Zoe herself, in a confiding, anecdotal voice, it opens with a flashback to childhood, which shows what a confusing notion of love the 10-year- old must have picked up from observing the bitter-sweet family romance played out between her father and grandmother.

Don't be deceived, though, by the apparent diagnosis of an Electra Complex into supposing that Prantera takes a psychoanalytical approach towards her heroine. Zoe wouldn't be able to charm us if she didn't have emotions we could identify with, but she is fundamentally a fantasy, not a patient on a couch with a complex inner life. In the same way, the upper- class world in which she moves has a fairytale patina to it (most characters live in grand country houses and don't have to work for a living); and the action of the novel appears to take place in a timeless, nostalgic bubble.

For someone so obviously attractive - she is as full of life as her name implies - Zoe seems to have pretty bad luck with men. The golden boy who gives her her first snog at a party turns unaccountably nasty; the dashing French aristocrat with the Byronic limp exudes an unpleasant odour; the nice Cambridge undergraduate with a sense of humour is hopelessly unfanciable; and one can only surmise that the Italian low-life must have appealed to her more masochistic instincts. One begins to sympathise with her father who, like Mr Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, enjoys baiting the young men she invites home by adopting perverse opinions. Yet one of Zoe's most appealing characteristics is her ability to walk away unscathed: she doesn't let it get her down when she discovers that her balding philosophy professor wasn't interested in her mind after all, and she can resist the lures of a wealthy Roman Don Giovanni.

At only 147 pages, and with big margins at that, this is a tiny book, but one which has been beautifully put together by someone who really knows her craft. Its wit and rather Mitfordish charm are highly seductive, and despite its undoubted whimsy it manages to avoid being sentimental. The prose is impeccable and there are just enough moments of poignancy - as when Zoe contemplates the early death of a best friend - to prevent it from being too sweet, though these shadows are never allowed to grow into anything really upsetting. This is classy light literature for the hedonistic reader - the novelistic equivalent of some sophisticated pudding crowned with spun sugar.

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