Cold comfort in the country

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively Viking, pounds 16

This book marks Penelope Lively's return to novel writing after the autobiographical break of Oleander Jacaranda. The cast have the usual bookish, middle-class occupations favoured in her novels: a writer, a copy-editor, a publisher, a seller of antiquarian volumes. The action is revealed through the eyes of Pauline, a highly independent, divorced woman in her mid-fifties who has retreated to the country for the summer, to be joined by her daughter with husband and child who live in the next- door cottage. Early indications suggest that son-in-law Maurice is already unsatisfactory or untrustworthy in some way: Pauline answers an innocuous question of his with a slight edge to her voice, for example - the kind of emotional hint Lively is so practised at creating.

Pauline is intimate with the processes of betrayal, thanks to her serially unfaithful ex-husband, and she relives her past in parallel with her daughter as Teresa heads towards a similar misery. Recognition prompts Pauline into a series of flashbacks, which reveal that mother and daughter have in turn married the same species of Mr Wrong. The book is partly about the pathology of jealousy, but more so, about how it feels to have to stand back and let your children make their own mistakes, even when they are exactly mirror your own.

Attractive men in Lively's work are often treated with mistrust: in Heat Wave the sexually adequate men are faithless schmoozers, whilst the nice man of the piece, Pauline's friend Hugh, is a comfortable old slipper with a negligible sex drive. You can't have it all, she seems to be warning us. The daughter's husband Maurice is a thoroughly recognisable type, superficial charm hiding vanity and manipulative skills, a man afraid of old age, given to making sweeping and largely empty remarks. ''Tedious stuff, nature,'' he pontificates. ''A process of weary repetition.''

The characters in this book are essentially urban people, who travel to the country with all their city accoutrements. The cottages bristle with computers, fax machines and other technical props. This is in keeping with the satirical element of the book, which revolves around Pauline's assertion that ''the cult of rural bliss is a myth.''

Penelope Lively is closely attentive to landscape and the countryside; but it is the prosaic commercial realities that are most present here. No sooner have we been lulled by the changing light over a rippling field of wheat than we are bluntly given the economic statistics of the farmland: 60 tons of wheat, worth pounds 5000. It is a deliberate tactic of deflation. This is the modern, populated English countryside, land of car boot sales and Happy Eaters.

Expanding her theme of the rural myth, Penelope Lively has Maurice himself writing a book : a history of tourism. This is a plot device of dubious interest, necessitating much visiting of local sights which brough on a bad case of Museum Leg in this reader. More importantly, the author does not link this issue in any meaningful way to the central emotional thrust. On the contrary, the surroundings are a distraction from what is taking place between the various protagonists.

Heat Wave never quite attains the true sense of engagement one is used to from this author, the poignancy of everyday lives made interesting by suffering or love. Everything depends on the quality of the writing, for there is no Sturm und Drang to hold the attention, rarely any dramatic confrontations to stir the blood. The most one can muster in support of the wronged wives here is a dull sort of indignation: Teresa is little more than an outline waiting to become a victim. The denouement is also somewhat hurried and over-convenient as a solution. But for Lively's fans, the satirical eye and ear are still there, picking up contemporary mores with the same old skill.

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