Porridge and confidences

Coupling by Wendy Perriam Flamingo, pounds 15.99
Thirty-year old Beattie Bancroft has low self-esteem. She lives in a squalid bedsit, does dead-end jobs and sleeps with Max, a married newspaper editor with a "bulging stomach and plump and hairy breastlets". Some people will do anything for a byline. Coupling, Wendy Perriam's twelth novel, has her usual hallmarks of sex, religion and men who say things like "God, you were amazing," or wander around in black silky kimonos wielding a baby's bottle.

Within pages of this novel's opening, Beattie is frothing beneath the acrobatic hands of a male masseur. "She willed him never to stop, to inch his sensuous fingers higher and higher up her thigh..." She is at a health farm - a treat paid for by her lover. The massage over, and feeling intensely embarrassed, Beattie spends the rest of the weekend cringing around corners. And this leads her to meet the love of her life, who happens to be a woman.

On a midnight trek to the kitchen she comes across Elizabeth modelling clay in the art-room. They share porridge and confidences. Elizabeth is everything Beattie is not. Fifty years old, this chain-smoking divorcee with her girlish figure and pony-tail works as a psychotherapist and has four grown-up daughters. She also owns a large house in Kent brimming with Persian carpets, antiques and gold-framed paintings. She potters around in jeans and never wears make-up.

Beattie becomes romantically fixated. When she gets a kidney infection, she soon convinces herself - and Elizabeth - that she might be dying of Aids. The saintly Elizabeth takes Beattie home to nurse her. Beattie concentrates on proving that she's worthy of her love.

First she types up Elizabeth's psychotherapy manuscript. Then she introduces her to horses, betting and Gold Cup Days. Beattie feels sure that if she could only get into print she will win Elizabeth's respect. That means indulging Max, who insists on a lot of romping about in black suspenders.

Beattie finds herself perplexed at her sexual fantasies about Elizabeth. She buys her naff presents and insists they adopt the names George and Sophie. It's all female bonding in winceyette nighties until Beattie discovers Elizabeth has fallen in love with Hugo, an art-dealer from her past.

Max, meanwhile, sends Beattie on an assignment for the woman's page. She sets off to a rebirthing course where amidst much hugging, crying and orgasmic shrieking people can "give birth to the person (they) were truly meant to be." Preparing to write something satirical, Beattie herself has a meaningful experience reliving the trauma of her own birth in which her male twin died.

Coupling is 437 pages long. The story could have been told in half the length and twice as sharply, but it reaches a comic peak with the rebirthing therapy. The flock of born-again happy folk are aiming for physical immortality, blithely ignoring the fact that their guru has been rushed to hospital with a heart attack.

A lot of labour has gone into rebirthing Beattie. Perriam wants us to take her seriously. She asks us to believe the impossible: a manipulative, selfish heroine who virtually overnight sheds her obsessive desire to possess Elizabeth and become instead a solid, dependable friend. It's hard to swallow. Unlike Beattie, we weren't reborn yesterday.