Love in the afternoon

Doris Lessing's first novel for eight years is a subtle vignette of late middle-aged passion. Louise Doughty finds her in top form
Love, Again by Doris Lessing Flamingo, pounds 15.99

All writers and reviewers should read Doris Lessing's own preface to her world-famous bestseller The Golden Notebook. In it, Lessing admits to losing her sense of perspective about critical opinion when her masterwork was published. ''Recovering balance, I understood the problem. It is that writers are looking in the critics for an alter ego, that other self more intelligent than oneself who has seen what one is reaching for, and who judges you only by whether you have matched up to your aim or not.'' New novelists should have those words tattooed on their chests.

Love, Again is Lessing's first novel for eight years and its aim could be colloquially distilled as the desire to prove that there's life in the old dog yet. She has partially succeeded, both in terms of demonstrating her own writing skill and in the presentation of her subject matter, a convincing portrayal of an elderly, secure and intelligent woman failing comprehensively and fruitlessly in love with not one but two much younger men.

Sarah Durham, ''a good name for a sensible woman'', is a sixty-something theatre manager, comfortable in her comfortable home and at ease with her job at The Green Bird, the successful fringe theatre where she has worked for years. Widowed when young, she has raised two children on her own and remained cheerfully inviolate to the arrows of romantic passion ever since. The only persistent cloud on her life has been Joyce, her troubled teenaged niece, who hangs out on the streets with prostitutes and drug addicts and turns up at her aunt's place once in a while to have a hot bath and pinch some jewellery.

Joyce is only a minor character but her presence resonates throughout the book, a salutary reminder that youth is not all sunbathing in bikinis and romping in the long grass. Without her the novel would be much more routine.

The main narrative strand is based on the Green Bird's latest production, a play about a turn of the century artist and musician called Julie Vairon. A social outcast during her lifetime, Julie is now an icon - particularly to Stephen Ellington-Smith, an aristocratic patron of the arts who is ''angel'' to The Green Bird's production, first in France, then in the grounds of his English country manor. The character of Stephen is the book's big problem. He is obsessively in love with the long-dead Julie and a walking example of the havoc love can wreak in those unused to its ravages. But his obsession is underway long before the book begins and we never really understand its genesis.

Sarah's passions are much more concrete as she falls firstly for Bill, the play's handsome juvenile lead, and then Henry, its director. Both men are young enough to be her sons and Bill, in particular, is spectacularly unworthy of her affections. Sarah's awareness of this is her chief redeeming feature. Even in the throes of sexual longing, she never loses her sense of how ridiculous the whole thing is. Once Bill has kicked open the door of her carefully preserved self-containment, the floodgates are open and Henry walks right in.

It is profoundly disappointing for the reader - never mind Sarah - that she never gets to consummate either of these amours. Lessing's subject matter is the theory of love as much as its messy practicalities. (She quotes so many authors and songwriters on the topic that it is hard to avoid the suspicion she has riffled a dictionary of quotations). In the same way, there is little sense of the economic realities of running a theatre. Lessing has a thousand people turn up for an open-air dress rehearsal of Julie Vairon in a remote rural area of France - and they all go away enraptured despite the fact that there is no banked seating or amplification. What she does capture - quite brilliantly - is the joyous self-absorption of a group of people all bent on the same artistic endeavour - the instant bondings, the sexual tensions and the claustrophobia.

In many ways, the most interesting relationships in the book are the non-romantic ones. There is an excoriating portrayal of Hal, Sarah's awful Harley Street brother, father to the unfortunate Joyce. At one point, Sarah visits their mother to try and understand her own newly-acquired emotional vulnerability but comes away without an answer. We are left to speculate about the extent to which the seeds of romantic destruction are sown during childhood. In a scene of intense, almost painful insight, Sarah witnesses a harassed mother cruelly ignoring her toddler daughter in a park and a kaleidoscope of possibilities about Sarah's own, unexplored childhood opens up. It is a wonderful moment in a book which, for all its imperfections, is full of fine thought and feeling.