Virgins and whores

Splitting Fay Weldon HarperCollins £14.99

This book is built on the premise that a woman consists of many personae struggling for supremacy within her complex soul. Here, to no- one's surprise except the heroine's, these are respectively: spoilt aristocrat, secretary, virgin and whore. Feminism, adieu. The cut-and-paste male, meanwhile, has no such claim to distinction, having just the one, usually inadequate, personality.

All that is needed to stimulate the multiple feminine facets is a decent emotional crisis - in this case, marital breakdown. "There was trauma in the air. Sir Edwin Rice has decided to divorce Lady Angelica Rice," the novel begins. Everything the book offers is presaged by these two pulse-slowing sentences; melodrama, victim-mongering, aristocrats with affected names, crises de nerfs. It may be a comedy of manners, a satire on upper-class bonk fiction, but it's hard not to feel that somewhere a fine line has been crossed between parody and the thing itself.

Estranged from her husband for having been found in bed with another man, the naive and helpless Lady Rice produces a competent and calculating secretary side, named Jelly, and becomes assistant to her husband's divorce lawyer. No one recognises her, although a tight white sweater seems to be the limit of her disguise, but let that pass. She sets about scanning her husband's correspondence and manoeuvring things her way. Oh, and performing fellatio to order for her boss, which is all right because she is using him and not the other way round, apparently.

The third character is Angelica, morally superior, fastidious concerning sex, from the class of "women [who] keep men as pets to fetch their handbags". Unfortunately for her husband, this is the side that predominates in their marriage - small wonder he has affairs.

Fourth is Angel the whore, bred to demonstrate the get-your-own-back- by-screwing-around syndrome, a strategy guaranteed to rebound only on its perpetrator. She hangs out at the hotel bar soliciting opportunities for S&M, topped up by sex with her chauffeur on the way to work. Fifth is a male voice, Ajax, an undeveloped entity scarcely meriting even the name of a narrative device. These characters conduct petulant dialogues in parentheses at every point in the action.

The manifestations of a woman's differing emotional states can be an inexhaustible subject, but attempts at analysis here are insubstantial, characterised by sweeping comment. The protagonist may be four different women, but they all share a strong affinity for the worst clichs and a sad absence of redeeming features.Whether this is deliberate or not on the part of the author is immaterial because one learns nothing either way, The element of divertissement that might lift the book into light satire is missing and it is dominated by the lower emotions, bitterness, spite, and revenge: "Hate, like sex, is an addiction," as Lady Rice says. It makes for dispiriting reading.

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