Friday Nights, By Joanna Trollope

Men are from Mars, women are ingenious
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The Independent Culture

Joanna Trollope fell in love while researching her latest novel. Chelsea Football Club is her new passion and it shows. Friday Nights, with its urban setting and football talk, is much pacier than some of her recent novels. She writes with real conviction about the glory of football, and her description of a little boy's first visit to Stamford Bridge is the best section of the entire novel. I still have a problem with Joanna Trollope's dialogue, but her new- found and unlikely passion for Chelsea makes for an entertaining novel.

Friday Nights is about women's friendships and the way they change when a new man enters the arena. Eleanor, newly retired, sees two forlorn young mothers walking past her Fulham window. She resolves to rescue lonely, widowed Lindsay and single mother Paula by inviting them to her house for a Friday night drink. Their Friday night circle grows to include Lindsay's chaotic sister Jules, who longs to be a club DJ, and Blaise, who runs a motivational business. Karen, who works with Blaise, is the final member of the G6. Married to failing artist Lucas whom she chose because "he wasn't going to feel diminished by my achievements", Karen has turned being the sole bread-winner into a cross between an ascent of Everest and a long trudge in the rain without a coat.

The problem with all six women is that it is often hard to remember who's who. They deploy a quasi-intellectual style of conversation that has more width to it than depth. A typical exchange goes like this: " 'Do you mean... that women don't identify themselves by work, the way men do?' ... 'I think men identify that way more completely than women do. That's all. I think women identify themselves mostly by their relationships.'" Their faux insights drove me mad, but they come off a great deal better than most of the men in the novel, who are manipulative, selfish, childish or all three. The poor blokes get to say things such as "Sorry, lady, but I'm not up for this" or "I don't do this, babe. I don't do this regular-guy stuff."

Friday Night's grit comes from Paula's louche new boyfriend Jackson, but clever old Eleanor has his number from the start. When he's not drawling "babe" or "lady", he's enticing Paula's friends and seducing her son with a trip to Stamford Bridge. For two thirds of the novel Jackson hovers on the square marked "villain" but turns out to be far more prosaic.

That, in the end, is the difference between men and women in this novel. The women are so much smarter than the men that one wonders why on earth they waste so much time and energy talking about them. Blaise thinks that "when it came to malevolence... women were often the worst. Women could be both subtle and ingenious in their spite." But given the ghastly array of men in this novel for whom subtlety is a foreign language, I'd rather have ingenious spite any day. Joanna Trollope's conclusion seems to be that there's nothing finer, more loyal, more supportive than a girl friend, just so long as she isn't competing for a boy friend. It's a depressing thought, but one she builds on with skill and wit.