Wicked! by Jilly Cooper

Darling, we much prefer the grown-ups
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The Independent Culture

Jasper loomed disconsolately in the kitchen doorway, his kind face drooping with tiredness. His glasses, Tabitha saw, were pushed up into that shock of hair that always looked as though he'd been sleeping on it.

"It is," he said slowly. "It is. Christ, that woman. Is she on drugs, do you think?"

Tabitha smiled to herself. She'd swiped Jasper's review copy the day it came in and sloped off to a long, celebratory hot bath, snarling at him like a terrier with colic every time he tried to prise it from her drooping fingers. "I loved it," she said. "I always do. You never quite do, do you, you poor love?"

Jasper sighed like a child blowing out birthday candles. "It's just so long," he said. "But it isn't only that." He thought for a minute, his brow like a thundercloud.

"She used to write about adults," he began in a rush. "Total gang of shits, of course, but it was the Eighties. All they did was ride and cheat and shag each other's partners, then they'd all turn out to be either terrible bounders or glorious heroes by the end. No one did it better. That book The Line of Beauty was an utter Jilly Cooper rip-off, just with poofs instead of debs. They gave it the Booker prize."

"You can't say that in your review," warned Tabitha. "But, darling, so what?"

"I preferred it when she was writing about grown-ups," said Jasper hotly. "I liked the one about television, and the music one."

"You're thinking of Rivals, the second in the series, and Appassionata, about an orchestra," Tabitha replied, rinsing her hands at the sink. She'd loved the latest story, all about flame-haired Janna, the feisty Northern teacher appointed head of a sink comprehensive in rural Larkshire, and her relationship with Hengist Brett-Taylor, the charismatic married headmaster of the independent school across town. And all the wonderful children! There was Paris Alvaston, the abandoned child with a face like a Greek god and an Orphic gift for poetry, and Pearl, the chippy self-harmer with a heart of gold, and...

"And all that laborious explanatory dialogue," Jasper was musing, "and the endless plot recapitulations disguised as interior monologue. Mind you, if women really do think like that, it'd explain a lot."

Tabitha gave him an indulgent look. "You can't complain about her style in your review, darling," she said sweetly, "you'll look like an idiot. Jilly doesn't give a toss about style, she's the most unpretentious writer in Britain. You might as well review Beckett and complain about the lack of catchy song-and-dance numbers."

He riffled through his notebook. "OK, wait, listen to this: 'Addicts, like corpses dug up from the grave, hung stinking and unwashed over broken fences... Couples having violent domestics were interrupted by the screams of prostitutes.' This is the rough part of town. It's like downtown Los Angeles, but it's meant to be just down the road from the most beautiful parkland in the country and a boarding school like bloody Brideshead. It's caricature! There's a black kid called Feral, for God's sake."

"I liked Feral," said Tabitha dreamily. "So virile, but such a sweetie at heart."

"And then there's the bonking. You can see what she's up to - all the oldies like Rupert Campbell-Black -"

"- the Golden Beast," interjected Tabitha helpfully, "peer of the realm, former politician, TV magnate and racehorse owner. Sexiest man in Britain - "

Jasper glared. "They're too old for people to want to read about them boffing each other. But now she's just doing the same thing with 13-year-olds! I mean, I don't think it's just me who's going to feel a bit funny reading about, what was it, his dick like a conger eel and her, God, her buttery cavern, when these are meant to be kids who haven't done their GCSEs. Let alone that a Jilly Cooper novel is about the worst forum you can imagine in which to tackle institutional racism, mental illness and rape..."

"Shhhh," Tabitha said, placing a pale forefinger on his trembling lips and snaking an arm around his back. "You'll finish it, though, won't you?" she said. "Like you finished all the other ones?"

Jasper made a resigned, agreeing sort of noise.

"And you think it's splendid that everyone's either really nice or really properly wicked, don't you, like I do," she insisted, "and you love all that wonderful, gossipy, bitchy nattering about people, which is why you look forward to them for months and are always sad when they finish. That isn't something you say about anyone else's books, is it?"

Jasper looked close to howling with guilt. "All right," he said. "Stop it. You're right. It's just... I'm meant to write about literature. How on earth can I say anything about it for the paper?"

"Oh, you'll think of something," she said vaguely. "And you're only cross because you've been up reading it all night. Look, I've made breakfast."