My Favourite Wife, by Tony Parsons

His lover is a dab hand at dim sum. But it was always a snack, never a feast

Reviewed,Emma Hagestadt
Wednesday 27 February 2008 01:00

Since the publication of his first novel Man and Boy, nearly 10 years ago, Tony Parsons has sought to reclaim the feminine ground with a series of bestsellers providing a bloke's-eye view of parenthood and marriage, friendship and romance. A veritable Barbara Cartland in trousers, here he explores that most cherished of male fantasies: can a married man maintain a happy home life while also seeing a third-world sex worker on the side?

Bill Holden, working-class boy turned ambitious corporate lawyer, has accepted a new job in boom-time Shanghai. With his blond wife Becca and four-year-old daughter Holly in tow, he settles into Paradise Mansions, a glitzy apartment block populated by expats and "permanent girlfriends", the paid-up mistresses of Shanghai's business elite.

Following a classic formula of popular fiction, Parsons sets Bill up for an Icarus-style fall. Despite his picture-perfect family, well-paid job and smart flat, Bill, like many of his newly-arrived colleagues, succumbs to the temptations of China's most sexed-up city. Initially shrugging off offers from the girls who work the bars on the Bund, he finds that his attention is drawn to JinJin, one of the condo's lonelier "second wives" – the owner of a red Mini Cooper and a dab hand at dim sum.

"A man with two houses loses his mind: a man with two women loses his soul," runs the Chinese proverb, and the novel's epigraph. Perhaps in the hands of a Douglas Kennedy or a Nick Hornby, Bill's moral fix might have triggered a series of heart-stopping and even humorous dilemmas. Instead, Parsons's lifeless narrative sees Bill – despite the protestations about not being "that kind of man" – having his cake and eating it. With Becca temporarily back in London, Bill has carte blanche to explore the "otherness" of his new lover: her broken English ("need rest room now"), near-hairless body and very small hands.

While Parsons's no-frills narrative style could hardly be described as pretentious, his novel fails to deliver the kind of adult payoffs that the best middle-brow fiction can offer. The fault lies not in the scenario or setting – modern China is memorably portrayed as a "medieval country with broadband" – but in Parsons' lame characterisation and sloppy syntax. Children "gambol", girlfriends grin "goofily" and married couples soap one another in the shower with "tender familiarity". Even Barbara might have come up with something a little more hard-core than that.

Harper Collins, £17.99. Order for £xx.99 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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