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Sporting in the spa

22 January 2005

12:00 AM

22 January 2005

12:00 AM

The Wives of Bath Wendy Holden

Hodder, pp.470, 12.99

George Orwell painted an unappetising picture of the typical book reviewer:

He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover.

It is the job of this bedraggled creature to invent reactions towards ‘books about which he has no spontaneous feelings whatever’.

I’m not sure why Orwell’s hapless reviewer came to mind while I was reading The Wives of Bath. ‘Chick lit’, a new and popular genre, apparently invented in Britain, is not aimed at balding, varicose, depressed men. It is aimed at women, like me, who have more than a passing interest in romance, dieting, babies, shoes, marriage and hand-bags. At its best, the writing is bubbly and frivolous. It has been described as ‘having a best friend tell you about her life’.

Does it stand up as good writing, though? Would it cheer Orwell’s jaded reviewer, sending him out into the world spruced and hopeful, or would it make him even more despondent?

Wendy Holden has written five best- selling novels already. The Wives of Bath will surely sell well too, though it is perhaps not so much lit for chicks as for broody hens. The story is about Amanda and Alice, high-fliers grounded by motherhood, and their husbands Hugo and Jake. These four meet at a prenatal group in Bath, but Amanda and Alice have ‘history’, as it were. They both used to work for a New York fashion magazine where Amanda was a features writer, cruel and with a lofty disregard for libel laws. Alice, the magazine’s lawyer, had the thankless task of trying to rein her in. They hated each other.

Now both have resurfaced in Bath. Alice, who got pregnant after a one-night stand with an environmentalist — the devastatingly handsome Jake — has decided to ‘get out of the writ race’. Blinded by Jake’s looks, Alice failed to realise that his environmentalism borders on the psychotic. He recycles everything, even condoms. As she struggles to look after the baby in miserable conditions, it becomes clear that she has made a terrible mistake.

Amanda, meanwhile, has married Hugo, a succesful estate agent, and produced a son in whom she feels so little maternal interest that a lucrative job abroad soon looks more enticing. Hugo is left to hapless fatherhood and a sort of Hugh Grant routine that has him careering loveably from one comic catastrophe to the next. Still, fatherhood has such a humanising effect that Hugo is astonished to find himself converted into that most unlikely of creatures, a caring estate agent.

For The Wives of Bath disbelief has to be more than suspended — really it needs to be locked in a box and flung out of the window. This is a flimsy story told at breakneck speed: in a jiffy people give up their careers, choose mates, reassess their lives, find solutions to intractable problems. What little characterisation there is belongs to the realm of panto: Alice and Hugo are likeable leading characters, while Jake and Amanda are ludicrous exaggerations.

It’s not so much a novel as a string of jokes, mostly to do with babies or environmentalism, and often very funny. I don’t think it would be enough to rouse much of a reaction from Orwell’s jaded reviewer, however. And if my best friend started to talk like this, I’d strangle her.

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