BOOK REVIEW / Break up with Jon and Libby Hughes: Let's get divorced] - Jonathan and Libby Hughes: Ebury, pounds 9.99

THE self-help market is crowded, to say the least. These days you only have to flick through a few paperbacks and bingo - you can be an instant millionaire and still have time for scrabble; or you can lose a couple of stone without getting out of bed; or you too - yes, you] - can learn how to enjoy unrivalled sex in a capsized dinghy without triggering the inflator-nozzle on your lifejacket. Ever since Dale Carnegie declared that the whole point of having friends was to influence them, the how-to genre has boomed. But there are still too many taboo subjects (try asking people how much they earn), so it is good to see someone having a serious look at the huge, vexed area of divorce.

It's not immediately clear that the yukky-nice presenters of the morning television chat-fest Wake up with Jonathan and Libby Hughes are the ideal people for such a task. Their own much-publicised breakdown was detailed with tacky fervour by the tabloids, and not everyone will be eager to take post-marital tips from a couple whose domestic misfortunes have been so blushingly well documented (it is hard to forget the incident with the hot water bottle and the kitchen scissors, for starters).

But surprising as it might sound, Let's get Divorced] is alert, sensitive and self-deprecating. 'We're getting divorced,' the book begins, 'and we feel good about it.' Not many high-profile marriages - let alone one involving 1992's Television Couple of the Year - could survive this sort of bracing, committed approach. But Jonathan and Libby - or Libby and Jonathan, as Libby prefers to call them - view divorce as just another way station on the road to self-knowledge and self-worth. They do not, as so many conventional marriage primers do, regard it as in any sense a failure; nor do they emphasise - thank goodness - the total sharing aspect of the well-managed divorce. What they call Positive Divorcehood is a way of treating a sometimes painful process as an enriching kind of self-examination. Splitting up the Libby and Jonathan way is meant to be intriguing, fulfilling - and fun]

Wise old Aristotle once wrote that a merry divorce was in defiance of natural law. Proust - who else? - quipped that it was impossible for people to part on good terms because people on good terms do not part. And I think it was Elizabeth Taylor who said that if divorce got any easier, the art of crockery-throwing would die out altogether. Well, Aristotle and Proust (and Taylor) obviously never met Jon and Libby Hughes] The celebrity authors of Let's Get Divorced] do not try to disguise their notorious, front-page differences: they cite Anna Karenina - 'all dysfunctional families are dysfunctional in their own way' - and we can tell they have brooded on these words long and hard. They have put their heads together and come up with a comprehensive menu of lifestyle options for surviving the big D.

Most of these involve what they call 'self-congratulation'. Jonathan recommends putting aside a few moments every day for looking in the mirror: 'Tell yourself that you have a strong, non-judgemental, unconditional love for yourself, that you're the most special person in this world, and that you really approve of everything you do.' This kind of ritualised self-love mantra sounds pretty embarrassing, but the remarkable thing is . . . it works] 'Personal separate development CAN be achieved,' the authors write, 'if there's complete honesty and openness between you. During the process of Positive Divorce, each of us has 'bonded' with the most important friend we have, ourselves.'

Libby is responsible for the book's most original and progressive feature, the superb At-a-Glance Faultfinder. Listed down the left-hand side are the tell-tale foibles that can undermine even the best relationship (misogyny, stupidity, crying jags) and down the right are arrayed the people responsible (mother, past spouse, spouse, Margaret Thatcher). That's because, deep down, there is always what Libby calls an 'exterior blame holder'. One of the central strategies of Positive Divorcehood is to pin the blame on someone else, and why not? Splitting up is depressing enough without feeling guilty all the time.

As Libby writes: 'Within every problem personality there's a victim waving the white flag and desperate to be noticed. It's very important as part of the self-healing process to find out who in your past and present is responsible for your inadequacies. For example, if you happen to have a cleanliness fixation, a glance at the Faultfinder reveals that your mother was to blame. Problems of self-abuse? Either you went to a boarding school or you've been reading too many sex surveys compiled by Shere Hite.'

It does seem a bit rum, since Jon and Libby see eye to eye on so many lifestyle issues, that they don't just kiss and make up (preferably in front of a roaring log fire]). As befits one of the founders of NOW] - the network for non-orgasmic wives - Libby is frank about the many ways Jonathan failed to meet her needs - needs that had been suppressed for centuries. She is bitterly honest about the way Jonathan used fidelity as an act of aggression, and helped him throw off his considerate outer self to reveal the grasping boy-child beneath. And she is not ashamed to admit that in times of crisis she often finds comfort in wondering what her 'favourite celebrity' would do.

Jonathan, meanwhile, is engagingly open about his efforts to find a secure, welcoming niche on the boy-man-warrior-boy continuum. He has compiled a remarkable graph of Libby's menstrual mood swings ('For Mr and Mrs Modern, the monthly period is something to be shared, understood - and treasured]'), and bravely confronts the issue of emotional dead wood: 'There are no porters or left luggage offices when it comes to emotional baggage.' As you can see, the authors are well aware that there is a lighter side to all this]

The various chapters of advice are wrapped around handsome photographs of the unhappy couple, moving interviews from Hello] and OK] magazine, and many useful charts. For instance: the square root of Compromise over Judgementalness squared, divided by Limit-

ing Beliefs, equals Empathic Wholeness - I think most married people will identify with that] Libby in particular is quick to resort to 'emotional algebra'. Towards the end she summarises: 'If we express Sexual Inadequacy as J, Intellectual Dullness as H, a healthy personal growth as L, and Positive Divorcehood as P, what we get is: L-J(H2 )=P. That's telling him, Libs]

Let's Get Divorced] is not a long book by any means. But it feels like a spacious and learned encyclopaedia of me-ness. There were a lot of jokes about this during the Thatcher years, but Jonathan and Libby have restored self-inquiry to its proper place: top priority. Forget about forgiveness and understanding. Put your foot down, get a lawyer, and go to it. As Martin Luther once remarked, he could forgive his wife anything so long as she didn't catch him with another woman - he wouldn't stand for that]

The only mystery is why a book so packed with sensible advice and motivated by such concern for the average would-be divorcee should be published today of all days. Anyone would think divorce was a laughing matter.