The Idea Of Love, by Louise Dean

Sex, drugs and public health
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The Independent Culture

The Idea of Love by Louise Dean is a wonderfully complex and original novel about desire, disappointment and mental illness, largely set in ex-pat Provence. Its principal characters, Richard and Valerie, Rachel and Jeff, live next door to each other, unhappily and with a great deal of anger and confusion. Life seems impossibly difficult for this group of damaged people, who are permanently unsure whether their pains and dilemmas are the stuff of ancient human grief or ludicrous storms in Provencal tea cups. Drinking is the primary occupation. In fact the entire novel is sodden with alcohol, the unplugging of corks and the glug of spirits marking a steady accompaniment to the action and inaction.

All four characters seem aware, from the start, that in the world they inhabit nothing is as it seems – Provence isn't lovely, marriage equals Love-Hell – but none knows what to do with this information. Their attempts to discover what matters in life become muddled up with all sorts of sharp practice and betrayals. Rachel is convinced that adopting African orphans will give her life authenticity, but this drive is quickly thwarted by corruption among the officials who handle her case. Even the "orphans" have parents lurking in the wings. Richard's apparently humanitarian job, which also takes him to Africa, strikes him as hopeless when he sees a lovely young girl given strong medication because she laughs a lot and questions her father.

Undone a little by these experiences, once back at home the couples take the maxim "Love they Neighbour" too literally. This doesn't help any of their fragile states. It is Richard's mental decline that lies at the heart of this book. A serial philanderer himself, who feels compulsive bouts of anonymous sex might be the answer, he is horrified and driven half mad to discover that his wife and neighbour are lovers.

There is not a single likeable person in The Idea of Love and the degree of cynicism that propels its protagonists is chilling, yet the writing is so inventive and has such an alluring energetic zeal that the prose itself shares none of its characters' languor or dissipation. Dean gives us an utterly fresh and convincing psychological portrait of a middle aged man falling apart and it isn't pretty, but it's always exhilarating. The child-like quality of Richard's mania is wonderfully drawn. Are you sure it isn't love, not sex, that you feel? he enquires of a friend who makes frequent visits to a prostitute. A startling scene in which he seeks help from a doctor he's sold drugs to in the past is ruthlessly comic. Yet irony is no replacement for comfort or salvation, everyone knows.

Dean's characters' criss-cross the globe in this novel and all locations are realised with eccentric details that delight and stun. In Cairo's Four Seasons the head of the World Health Organisation, with his brown suit and pale dyed hair, looks like a "crème caramel". Veiled Muslim women finger the perfume "Insolence" on Selfridges ground floor. Palm trees interrupt the washing lines in Marseilles, and in the consulting room of a Kenyan hospital, beyond several giraffes, "the nursing trio changed knees in unison, something like medicine's answer to the Supremes."

Louise Dean's lovely rendering of her awful people makes The Idea of Love an enormous delight.

Susie Boyt's 'My Judy Garland Life' will be published by Virago in October