Was she a friend of Bill's?

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The Independent Culture
Special Relationship

Robyn Sisman

Heinemann £10

We all know what we want from a blockbuster. Hot sex. Betrayal. Bitchery. But as you turn the pages of Robyn Sisman's novel, , the only thing that gets hotter is the air. First there's the publisher's blurb, which tells us that Sisman, a former editor who once brushed shoulders with the literati, went to Oxford at the same time as Bill Clinton. And then there's the roman clef about a woman, Annie, who has a one night stand with a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the Sixties and bears a son that might be his. Twenty- two years later, Jordan Hope is knocking at the door of the White House and Annie's son, convinced that Jordan is his father, threatens to alter the course of world history and wreck Annie's comfortable marriage in the process.

In the meantime, Annie is poised on the brink of becoming a woman of substance after years of toiling away in a rickety Soho office as a literary agent, with a book auction that will net millions of dollars. And then there's Rose, Annie's chum from Oxford, now a phenomenally successful magazine editor in New York (Tina Brown, anyone?) who has the power to bend fate to her ambition. Phew. It's enough to wilt the radicchio at any publisher's lunch. Then there's the bidding war, the delicious promise of flagelot beans spilled. Talk about bank (or should that be bonk?) ability.

Expect a few hours of titillating tell-all from Robyn Sisman's novel though, and you're in for a big disappointment. Here we are in Oxford circa 1969, all sunlit lawns and champagne and punting on the Isis. Youth and fun and innocence marred slightly, very slightly, mind, by the spectre of Vietnam. Instead of evoking the atmosphere though, Sisman scatters her prose with as many period references as she can muster. So Annie has "Joni Mitchell hair" and wears Biba. Rose favours Grace Slick, Jeanne Moreau and purple tights and crushes her cigarettes out on a Chairman Mao ashtray. People vault over stiles, leap into the beat when they dance, throw out their arms and twirl around. It's all so exciting! "A bubble of happiness rose within [Annie] till she thought she would burst." One great big exclamation mark! Writing by numbers!

By the time we get to the sex scene, it's page 222, and in place of the sound of ripping cheesecloth, we get this: "Annie felt pierced with joy. She heard a low, crooning sound that might have been Jordan's saxophone, and realised that it was her own voice." Sisman is equally coy on the nail-biting question of Bill and the spliff: "Annie could have told anyone who asked that the stuff made him sick."

Meanwhile, in the present, Annie's son, Tom, is in his first term at Oxford. On the trail of the truth about his paternity, he goes to visit one of his mother's old teachers, who lives in a house called Honeysuckle Cottage with a white picket fence, and who has "a face wizened like a monkey's". In the park, he sees women wheeling prams (prams?). Later, Peter Kerry style (except that he is 18, not 15), Tom disappears, not to Malaysia, but to New York to confront Jordan. Nonetheless, he's astounded by such things as pooper-scoopers, he's shocked when he's jeered at by drug dealers at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and he meets people whose concept of Englishness still comes from Upstairs Downstairs.

Someone really should have told Robyn Sisman that it takes more than a spot of judicious name-dropping and a marketable CV to turn yourself into Jackie Collins. This is a world of sugar and spice, where everyone is incurably nice. Even Rose, the scheming networker, blunts her own stilettoes in the name of loyalty. Annie's boss, Jack, who, in a clumsily tacked- on subplot, attempts professional sabotage, ends up stammering an apology. There's even a death bed scene with Annie and her mother, the brittle society wife. And yes, they all live happily ever after. What a wind-up.