Comfort and Joy, By India Knight


It's two days before Christmas and wife and mother of two, Clara Dunphy, has finally finished her last-minute shopping on Oxford Street. On a whim she decides to treat herself to a champagne cocktail at the Connaught hotel, where she is chatted up by a handsome stranger. This besuited inamorato will be known for the rest of the book as "the man from the Connaught".

Fans of Knight's debut, My Life on a Plate, will be pleased to see the return of Clara, a sharp-witted and disarming narrator who will soon have us snorting with schoolgirlish hilarity. Set over three consecutive Christmases, the novel sees Clara's life veer off course as marriage to husband number two starts to implode and she embarks on a new romantic adventure.

The "dance of early middle-age" is Knight's theme, and this seasonal romp gets to grips with the disappointments of marital love and the more vocal complaints of the serial singleton. The backdrop for the book's well-orchestrated set pieces is Clara's annual Christmas supper for friends and extended family. For a writer with an eye for the absurd, it's at these gatherings that Knight sends up contemporary attitudes to food, love and child-rearing with her customary gusto.

Chief among Clara's intimates are best girl-friends, Tamsin and Hope. Each new year sees a new set of developments in their unpredictable love-lives. Tamsin's latest boyfriend is a much older man called Jake, whose archaic "sex-vocab" is one of the delights of the book. Meanwhile yoga-loving Hope, desperate to get married, spends the annual gathering allowing the assembled husbands to drool over her "enviably flat stomach". Other regular guests to Clara's table include "school-parent friends", Tim and Sophie, the kind of earnest couple who might have stepped out of a Mike Leigh film.

The only disappointment in this fearless comedy is that the "man from the Connaught" remains a largely shadowy presence. As the Christmases come and go, Clara continues to analyse the "death of passion". Can "hottish rumpo" ever coexist with the lukewarm companionship of everyday married life? She concludes, somewhat reluctantly, that it cannot.

Knight's book is a paean to blended family celebrations and friendships. But concealed beneath the frothy wrapping is the more serious message to divorce well, love the rattiest of children, and keep your festive spirit intact.