Life among the croissant eaters

Perfectly Correct by Phillippa Gregory HarperCollins, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Philippa Gregory's new novel takes us straight into the lives of Louise Case and Toby Summers, prominent academics at Suffix University. These are smug, sophisticated, loose-moralled people, who inhabit a Guardian- reading, croissant-eating, permanent sit-com of a world, where folk are always in and out of each others' houses, cooking suppers whilst marking essays, having their odd jobs seen to by the local handyman, even owning two sets of pyjamas, a plain cotton pair for everyday and saucy silk for the odd bout of adultery.

Summers is painted as a typical academic roue, fiercely ambitious about his work and his love life, relishing weekend conferences for the romantic opportunities they provide, whilst conducting a nine-year affair with Louise. His spouse, the long suffering and put-upon Miriam (who just happens to be Louise's best friend) leads a harsher sort of existence, losing her cares through her campaigning for various good causes and her work with victims of domestic abuse. Louise spends her evenings in her idyllic country cottage pining for Toby and reading D.H. Lawrence, placing Xs in the margin when she feels he has struck a blow against womankind. Her feminism is charged with having ruined fiction and poetry for her, leaving her immune to subtleties of style and meaning as she constantly searches for any author's disgust with his female characters.

Then Rose arrives, a gypsy in a blue van who takes root in Louise's orchard and refuses to budge, interfering in Louise's affairs and casting aspersions on her lifestyle. Almost immediately, she becomes a focus for all the other characters in the book. Toby's eyes are filled with pound signs when he catches sight of her collection of invaluable sufragette documents.Miriam worries about her questionable toilet facilities and tries to find her accomodation elsewhere. Rose's presence forces Louise to look at her life through a stranger's eye for the first time and she becomes more and more dissatisfied with what she sees. The village fears that Rose heralds the arrival of a whole comunity of New Age travellers and the local squire launches a military style campaign.

The problem with this book is that it constantly flits between things that are very heavy and things that are light. Adultery, homelessness, domestic violence go hand in hand with farmyard slapstick and transparent hypocrisy. Often the balance seems crude, the judgements skewed and Gregory's occasional pronouncements on the world and his wife fail to ring true. Miriam's social work, her staffing of the phones of crisis lines are made less effective by the fact that we never see this side of her life or get involved with any of her clients. Gregory also seems to miss the chances she gives herself. She doesn't seem interested in what it would say about a person that she saw fit to carry on an affair with her best friend's husband for nine years, something that would be very fertile soil indeed to this novelist. The affair serves plot rather than character: Philippa Gregory seems strangely uninterested in the psychology of her characters.

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