Glass Houses, by Sandra Howard

Just too good to be true?
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The Independent Culture

Sandra Howard has long been one of the most popular "wives" in political circles, praised for her elegance and charm. In the 1960s she was a model, with a steady career that went on as her contemporaries' faded. With this fascinating first novel she reveals many more qualities - sharp wit, subtlety, and a keen eye for the telling detail.

Novels by MPs' wives are often tedious romans à clef about the travails of trying to negotiate the demands of their husbands' careers with family life. This is refreshingly different: about individuals caught between private loyalty and public duty, moral principle and the vagaries of the heart. Yet there are plenty of clefs to work out, and one of the pleasures is fitting the characters to "real" figures and events, like a jigsaw puzzle. It is also a terrifying exposé of the destructive symbiosis between sections of the media and politicians.

The day following the general election, Victoria James, a lawyer turned MP, is expecting a call from Downing Street - "like waiting for a lover to propose". She is made minister for housing and development and relishes the challenge. Her 16-year-old daughter Nattie and husband Barney, a solicitor with a penchant for drink and women, are not sure.

All goes well, but one day she meets William Osborne, the editor of The Post, an upmarket tabloid at permanent circulation war with its rival The Courier. William is the attractive, "punchy", anchor-man of a panel programme. He is married to Ursula, a "cool English rose" who lives in the country, and they have three children. Both marriages are in the doldrums: "flames for a year, ashes for 30", as she quotes Lampedusa's description of marriage in The Leopard.

Victoria and William fall irresistibly in love, and their lives begin to unravel. The press get a whiff and the hounds are unleashed by William's rivals.

The development of Downsland, an area of Greenbelt, is Victoria's first big hurdle: she has to juggle strong opposition from residents, and the vested interests of developers. Greed and official incompetence poison the debate. When her shadow discovers that Downsland belongs to a client of Barney's firm, charges are levelled against her. She clears her name and, when the official survey gives the go-ahead, decides to visit. The sight of fields and meadows makes her change her mind. In the process, she is nearly destroyed.

Howard weaves the varied strands of her ingenious plot into a smooth and exciting narrative. She has created some interesting characters, in particular her protagonist - a very English heroine, tactful and malleable, but with a steely core of integrity. One wishes she were true.