BOOK REVIEW / Torn between seduction and sermons: It Takes Two, Maeve Haran; Michael Joseph, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THERE is a teenager called Ellie in Maeve Haran's latest novel. She wears flimsy frocks and enormous boots, her room is unspeakable and she generally has something to grumble about. Nothing is fair. As the story begins, she is bewailing the fact that she's been lucky. 'It's all right for you,' she tells her mother crossly, 'you had a deprived childhood. Luke and I have had everything handed to us on a plate. It really isn't fair.' But she and her brother are about to undergo a grim and common deprivation, the separation of their parents, and at last they encounter something that really isn't fair.

Divorce, says Haran, is universally accepted, widely encouraged, often celebrated. Her heroine is Ellie's mother, Tess, a radical London solicitor whose husband drifts off with a sumptuous siren of immense wealth, influence and glamour. Tess practises family law and finds herself suddenly and uncomfortably the recipient of advice she has so often given her clients. The lawyer she consults about her own marriage advises a speedy divorce. 'There hasn't been a man in our family for as far back as anyone can remember,' says her secretary, full of cheery encouragement, 'we've forgotten what they're for.' Even her caricature of a Liverpool-Irish mother announces that the role of men in marriage is highly overrated. So perhaps she should just do it, turn her back on their years together, cut her losses, go for adultery, screw her husband for everything she can get and look to the future?

It is a serious issue for popular fiction, and it is handled seriously, but the result is not a solemn book. Far from it. This is a novel that treads a careful line between a serial in a women's magazine and the sermon on the mount. The magazine element offers romance, office politics, courtroom drama, power- dressing, problems of domestic organisation, plenty to laugh at and a strong, compelling plot. Characters have 'eyes the colour of stone-washed denim'; children eat nothing that isn't coated in orange breadcrumbs and fritter away their days on computer games and plastic wrestlers; sex for their parents becomes an item on a list of things to do, 'somewhere between the school run and the supermarket' (though that seems to be an alphabetical rather than a chronological list, if you think about it).

Yet beneath all the enjoyable and observant detail of frantic urban life, the drum sounds, reminding us that bringing up children is a serious responsibility. Every character in Haran's large cast of eccentrics expresses strong views on marriage, and most of them have failed to make it work. London is littered with the dejected or delinquent offspring of warring parents. The seductive siren comforts herself, as they always do, with the excuse that she didn't really steal Tess's husband - the marriage had already failed. Tess's friends are all divorced or on the way to it, and would like to see her join them. Eventually Tess herself thinks that perhaps she is asking too much by hoping to stay married in an age when choice rather than duty rules people's lives.

In the end, after a convincingly terrifying accident, it is the children who settle it. Those who hunger and thirst after justice, and who see where justice lies - more clearly than do most of the adults - receive their reward. Serial and sermon come together as love triumphs - not the relatively frivolous titillation of sexual attraction, but 'the fierce passion of parental love'. Maeve Haran's writing is light, undemanding, apparently easy: her message is the opposite.

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