Shrieks and floods on a girls' night out

Too fat? Too cross? Can't find a decent man? The women's novel of the Nineties says it's OK to be flawed.
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Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph £#163;9.99)Onwards and Upwards by Arabella Weir (Hamish Hamilton, £#163;12.99

Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph £#163;9.99)Onwards and Upwards by Arabella Weir (Hamish Hamilton, £#163;12.99

ALTHOUGH THE basic structure of women's popular novels has not changed much during the last ten years, the aspirations of those portrayed in them have taken a distinctly downward turn. Whereas reading a bonkbuster in the late 1980s might have made you feel, for one insane millisecond, that you too could have a make-over, scoop the husband of the decade, snap up the odd multinational company and end up a cross between Ivana Trump and Hilary Clinton, reading a current girlie novel leaves you reassured that it's okay to be endearingly flawed.

Last Chance Saloon tells the story of three friends from an Irish village who come to London. Tara has a propensity to overweight and for relationships with commitment- phobes; Katherine loved and lost in Limerick, since when she has dressed with the severity of a nun and won't allow men near her; and Fintan is a gay designer.

Of the three only Fintan seems capable of conducting a normal emotional relationship. The two women are shown in counterpoint: one telling herself "she simply must try harder to make this tormented, scarred man of hers happy", and the other being gratuitously rude to any man with the temerity to talk to her. One is desperate for male company and will put up with anything to acquire it, while the other spends her evenings cuddled up to her TV remote control. Because their positions are almost caricatures it is not difficult to see that each will get her own come-uppance. This is delivered in the shape of Fintan who, while ill in hospital, demands that each woman follow a course of action most calculated to confront their particular emotional demons. How they face their fears comprises the second half of the book.

Last Chance Saloon is a good read partly because of crisp plotting - the ideas are simple but they are deftly executed and satisfyingly worked through - and because Marian Keyes is a born storyteller. At the beginning there are moments when this gets in the way of the novel. Ms Keyes's love of a good line or a joke sometimes transcends the needs of situation or character, and the overall effect occasionally borders on the relentless.

But by the second half of the book the story itself has taken over, and the exuberant style drives the narrative towards a conclusion in which comedy alternates with tenderness.

Onwards and Upwards also follows the lives of three characters, all girls this time, who meet on the first day of school when they are eleven. Bert is feisty and rebellious; Vicky is the glamorous peacemaker; and Tess has few defining characteristics until, in her twenties, she comes out as a lesbian and a screenwriter. The characters undergo a range of experiences - falling in love, performing to various standards in exams, succeeding and failing in an assortment of jobs - but because these are almost all conducted off-stage, they leave little impression. Events are communicated to the reader mainly through the conversations that the three girls have with one another, and reading the book is rather like being at one, long girls' night out. Arabella Weir, however, is a good writer. She keeps the pace going, and explores with conviction three different female reactions to the challenge of finding a place in the world of the 1990s. It would be good to see her tackle a more ambitious format.

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