Gambles with the old devils of New England

<i>Rhode Island Blues</i> by Fay Weldon (Flamingo, &pound;16.99, 325pp)
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The Independent Culture

Fay Weldon's 23rd novel is a study of unconventional old age and a debate about the elusive balance of love and commitment with integrity. Sophie King is an independent girl: at 31, she's a successful film editor with a flat in Soho and glorious red hair. In determined contrast to her poor mad mother, Angel, her head is firmly screwed on. What she lacks, or thinks she lacks, is a family.

Fay Weldon's 23rd novel is a study of unconventional old age and a debate about the elusive balance of love and commitment with integrity. Sophie King is an independent girl: at 31, she's a successful film editor with a flat in Soho and glorious red hair. In determined contrast to her poor mad mother, Angel, her head is firmly screwed on. What she lacks, or thinks she lacks, is a family.

What she's got is Felicity. Her grandmother is a former good-time girl and still an enchantress at 85. She's living out her widowhood in dull Connecticut with only her raucous neighbour Joy to inject some sorely-needed discord.

Feeling sorry for herself after a minor stroke, Felicity rings her granddaughter. She's selling her house and needs support. Sophie is in the final stages of an edit and has embarked on an uneasy flirtation with the film's director, Harry. She also partly blames Felicity for Angel's tragic death. So she postpones the visit. Work comes first. Reluctantly, she then visits the grandmother whom she begins to appreciate - and ultimately to love.

With Joy in tow, they investigate the local retirement homes and discover The Golden Bowl, a luxurious Rhode Island establishment run on the principles of Jungian psychology and holistic self-realisation techniques by amiable Dr Grepalli and his consort, the formidable Nurse Dawn. Weldon has a lot of fun with this pair while sailing close to cliché. Felicity moves into a tasteful, if haunted, suite, blithely hanging her Utrillo on the pink-striped wall. In parting she lets slip the startling news that she had another daughter. Offspring of her rape a at 15 by a step-uncle, Alison was put up for adoption.

Sophie promptly hires a detective to search for her fantasy-family while struggling to keep her emotional distance from Harry, who now shares her bed. Her aunt is unearthed in a terminally depressing nursing home; Alison, however, is unlikely to notice since she suffers from Alzheimers. She has two children, Guy and Lorna, to whom Sophie pays excessive court.

Rhode Island Blues is often more like Mary Wesley than Fay Weldon, especially when Felicity announces that she has fallen in love with a younger man. "The sky brightens, the future beckons, you start again!" William Johnson is 73 and an irredeemable gambler. The parallel love affairs are interrupted by a subplot involving Joy's Bosnian chauffeur, pointless rhetorical digressions, readings from the I Ching, and misquoted lyrics.

Weldon excels at compression. With too much space to rattle around in, she quickly loses her edge. The novel sags and no amount of ruminative padding can plump it up. (Her tart wisdom isn't entirely absent. She reminds us that "those who care least win".) Harry is a lazy construction and the New England settings have little feeling of locale. It's tasteless that Felicity is rewarded with health and romance while her pitiful daughter rots away.

However, the gambling scenes are filled with tacky magic, while William emerges as tough and articulate. Here, and in the long episode on Felicity's past, the novel ignites. After a farcical escape from The Golden Bowl, Weldon stages a Preston Sturges-style finale to the two romances. Sophie gambles on Harry, while Felicity and William risk marriage. It's commendable that Weldon shows the elderly having lives and loves, but Felicity is just too glam a granny to serve as an encouragement to the others.

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