Books: Bitter-sweet crumbs from the tuck box of love

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John Fourth Estate, pounds 9.9 9 Emma Hagestadt is surprised to find a 'good read' has crept on to the Booker short list
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The kind of book you'd recommend to your girlfriend, but be surprised to find on a Booker short list, Madeleine St John's story of love and longing in Notting Hill isn't deceptive in its simplicity - it just moves along. In very short sentences. Fast.

Jonathan and Nicola have lived together happily for five years. So it's a shock when Jonathan says it's all over. By chapter six Nicola has moved out of their flat and is living with friends in South London. Several weeks on, she's still baffled about his change of heart, and can only assume that behind the serge suits and twinkling blue eyes lurks a rodent of hitherto undetected horridness. Meanwhile, Jonathan has fled back to Gloucestershire, to be irritated by his parents and reaffirm his conviction that marriage is a self-imposed hell to be avoided at all costs.

Baldly summarised thus, the novel sounds unexceptional, but Sydney-born St John has perfect pitch when it comes to the lingo of her adopted city - her conversational style and short chapters paint an entirely accurate picture of urban, middle-class pretensions.

Towards the end of the novel, St John unlocks the mystery of Jonathan's closed heart. It goes back, of course, to prep school and the contents of his tuck box. Sitting in his parents' garden he concludes that to be alone and utterly miserable is preferable to being hitched and partially miserable. Love, like his mother's home-made marmalade, is bitter-sweet and very sloppy.

No prizes for guessing the outcome of the novel, and probably no surprises in store for St John when the Booker is announced. Far too readable, and not fruity enough for a long shelf life: the odds against her winning are high.

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