Love in Idleness By Amanda Craig

Lord, what fools these mortals be - especially when on holiday
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To hint that a novel is a roman à clef is to invite the wrong sort of attention. The identity of Ivo Sponge has taken up a ridiculous amount of ink. A character in Amanda Craig's previous novel, A Vicious Circle, he was louche, unscrupulous, unattractive and a bit of a twit - and supposedly based on a real journalist (several candidates were suggested). Another denizen of literary London, but we'll spare his blushes - oh no we won't, it was David Sexton, now literary editor of the Evening Standard - objected to passages in the novel which, he felt, identified him with another character. All of this seemed to focus more - and less - attention than the book actually deserved. It was too good-humoured and original to be an exercise in score-settling. The characters were cleverly imagined, not cribbed from dull life.

Ivo Sponge returns in Love in Idleness, and he's got rather nicer in the interim. He forms part of an ill-assorted house party near Cortona in Tuscany: the sort of gathering which sounds like a good idea in rainy London, but which rapidly turns sour in the face of sun, booze, idleness and paradisal surroundings. Poor Sponge is savaged on arrival by the hostile Ellen, who can't forgive him for a past romantic slight. He is keener on Hemani, the mother of young Bron; but such is Ellen's withering scorn that you feel quite sorry for the saggy Lothario.

Their hosts are Theo and Polly, wealthy but stressed possessors of a "perfect marriage". But Theo doesn't "do" downtime, and in Polly's topsy-turvy world, holidays without staff mean a longer working day than at any other time of year. Holiday lust, sulks over who's doing the most chores, fury at other people's spoilt children - all the familiar irritations are amusingly dissected here. Polly frowns at Hemani's casual attitude to meals and bedtimes for Bron; Hemani wearily notes that for all Polly's fervent belief in structure, her children, Tania and Robbie, are out of control.

Smart readers, alerted by the Shakespearean allusion of the title, will work out the connections for themselves: Theo/Theseus, Hemani/ Hermia, Polly/Hippolyta, Bron/Oberon, Tania/Titania. But Craig's reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream is light and sparkling, not heavy and pretentious. The parallels aren't crucial to any enjoyment of the book (rather the reverse, as the reader can guess in advance at the plot developments). But there are sophisticated pleasures to be had for those who spot the links and relish Craig's adroit manipulation.

There is, inevitably, a moment when two pairs of lovers become lost in an enchanted wood; Ellen and Hemani go at it hammer and tongues, echoing their Shakespearean originals. Hermia, you'll remember, is teased for her lack of height. Likewise, Hemani is "vertically challenged", a "little vixen" who's "lowering" herself - no wonder Daniel (Demetrius), a Shakespeare scholar, says wonderingly: "This all sounds familiar, somehow."

But just as debate about the "true" identity of Ivo Sponge is beside the point (he's a film critic now, which has thrown some new names into the pot), so too is an overearnest dissection of the story's sources. The novel works brilliantly as a sharp and funny analysis of modern mores, a magical story of transformation - and only after that a clever literary joke, if you've the taste for it.

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