Stormy weather

A housewife braves the elements. By Vicky Ward Casting Off by Libby Purves Sceptre, pounds 15.99
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Libby Purves's first novel tells of how Joanna, a bright housewife in her late thirties, argues with Keith, her solicitor husband, during a weekend's sailing, over whether or not she should sell her profitable but unexciting village tea-shop. The upshot is that when husband and daughter get out of the boat, Joanna sails off alone, to face herself, her past and her future, as well as the elements.

But this is not a one-woman-at-sea story. Joanna's flight is drawn to the attention of the press, who blow it up out of all proportion. The consequence is hilarious. There are wild goose chases over both land and sea involving newspaper tycoons, call-girls, hacks and upper-crust young fogies; Joanna's seemingly errant, but actually much misunderstood teenage daughter capitalises on her mother's absence to resign from school and embark on a higher education course in magazine editing; a seedy academic decides to join in the chase. In Purves's sceptical, humourous hands, all this remains within the realms of possibility.

Purves's portraits of parochial, family, newspaper, academic and teenage mentalities are fabulously incisive. I had forgotten what it was like to be 16, but, reading this, it really did all come flooding back. Delicately woven into the humorous narrative are characters who live genuine moments of pain. There is nothing melodramatic about Joanna's resentment at not having finished her university career and having lived a life of housewifely drudgery ever since, nor Keith's misery at having been deserted by his wife.

Ultimately, though, this is a feel-good novel and everyone's problems are reconciled in a believable, unhurried fashion without - as so often happens with neat plots - the too tidy de-complication of complicated characters.