Penguin £7.99 (318pp) (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Idea of Love, By Louise Dean

Louise Dean's third novel may come prettily wrapped in hearts and cupids, but a dark tale of tired marriages and shabby liaisons lies withi. Richard, sales director of a pharmaceutical company, makes his living selling psychotropic drugs to the developing world. Recolated from London to Provence, he and his French wife, Valerie, soon settle into an indolent life of boozy barbecues and late night soirees. Their new best friends, American expats, Rachel and Jeff, bring with them the promise of wife-swaps and illicit affairs. Both couples seem resigned to the fact that the Riviera is dull, and family life is "one of those things that is very bad for you but which is accepted as something nifty." Out of this group of malcontents, Richard is the most fully realised character. A serial philanderer, his frequent business trips abroad are covers for bouts of casual sex that always end up in the same "sticky mess".

But on one sales mission to Africa, he's brought up short. Witnessing the human cost of his company's mis-marketed anti-depressants on a young girl, he's shamed into giving up his job. On his return to France he discovers his wife and neighbour have become lovers.

Occasionally Dean gets carried away on the crest of her own inventive prose, but these slips are few and far between. The novel's insights into anomie and desire are amusing and bold. Through a haze of rose and coke, Dean's desperados come to learn that love costs, and that "nothing worth having came of guilt and pity; you had to be tough to love..." EH

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