Mantrapped, by Fay Weldon


Another pages on this author in this site        O        O        O

Little swap of horrors

Fay Weldon combines fiction, fantasy and memoir for a meditation on gender and the art of writing fit for the age of reality television, Mantrapped

Liz Hoggard
Sunday September 19, 2004
The Observer

by Fay Weldon
4th Estate £16.99, pp268

A man and a woman brush past each other on the staircase and exchange souls. The ensuing 'sex swap' causes chaos in their private lives - and is the ideal platform for Weldon to tease out the delicious ironies of gender difference. He finds breasts difficult, she rather likes having a 'thing'. They both eat far too much and revert to a semi-childlike state, much to the horror of his controlling girlfriend.

Of course, Weldon being Weldon, these are hardly ordinary characters in the first place. Trisha is a washed-up celebrity - a lottery winner, who has spent her fortune and is reduced to working for the local laundry. Peter is a journalist living in a dull equal-ops relationship. Both are ripe for change in their lives.

For years Weldon has highlighted the absurdity of male-female relationships. But actually it's not plot that surprises here, it's form. Having written a conventional autobiography, Weldon now embarks on a new 'reality' hybrid. Mantrapped is part memoir, part novel - or rather Weldon sets up a densely plotted story, and then starts intruding all over the place, offering hints, footnotes, and touching comparisons with her own life (like Trisha she has been from rags to riches and back again). Having claimed for years that all fiction springs quite free of the author, Weldon has done a complete about-turn. In a world in love with the reality genre and the Big Brother house, she argues it would be dishonourable to keep yourself out of your own novels.

It's not exactly new. Novelists from Laurence Sterne to George Eliot are famous for offering their own lofty authorial interjections. But few would offer quite so much detail about their sex lives or the discord of marriage, or indeed the failure of the antiques trade in the 1970s (Fay's second husband Ron was a painter-turned-antiques dealer). At times it can be tiresome for the reader, as you're forced to leave the narrative of Trisha and Peter for Weldon's digressions. But gradually you stop resisting. And there are fascinating insights. This short story really was inspired by Weldon's abortion; that novel came from her 15 years of Freudian therapy.

Weldon is remarkably good-natured about her chaotic past. She turns a clear-eye on her laziness, the failure of her first two marriages, her unlikely literary success. (When her early novels came out male critics accused them of intellectual sloppiness, a crime Weldon partly accepts, admitting that she turned her rejected TV scripts into novels, hence her reliance on the present tense, which later became so modish in the modern novel). She is also good on the myth of the 1950s Great Man (George Barker, Ted Hughes, her own husband Ron), who was actually rather terrified of female intimacy.

Of course male intellectuals may not like the free-form style of Mantrapped either. 'It is liberating to be so cavalier with time,' she admits. Not that she ever totally relinquishes control, (she's forever teasing us about future plot twists). And some of the rants about happiness or morality or cosmetic surgery could do with a bit of editing (she freely admits her style comes close to automatic writing). But when she's on form - marshalling those elegant, deadly, sentences - there's simply no touching Weldon as a writer.


Mantrapped by Fay Weldon

Tea and scones and uncomfortable truths

By Laura Thompson

19 September 2004

Fay Weldon is a literary diva: a pagan goddess wrapped in a cosy pashmina. She has been writing novels for nearly 40 years but is probably most celebrated now for her glorious appearances in the modern media, attacking sacred cows like the therapy culture in that tea-and-scones voice of hers. More famous as herself, perhaps, than as a novelist? Mantrapped accepts this idea and uses it to advantage.

It is not exactly a novel. It does have a fictional narrative, in which Peter, a "testosterone-lite" young man of the couscous-eating genus, swaps bodies with Trisha, a "soiled but soft and amiable" woman of a certain age. Up pop the questions about masculinity and femininity. What is innate and what can be influenced? Are the sexes really becoming more alike and, if so, what does this mean? Such questions are at the heart of Weldon's work; nevertheless the real heft of Mantrapped lies beyond this central narrative.

The "novel" is drenched in authorial presence. Weldon knows that her readership is at least as interested in her as in what she writes. And so she wanders around her book like Mrs Danvers, commenting constantly on her characters and ideas, breaking off from them to give us chapters of autobiography: "Sadly," she says, "a novel simply no longer feels meaty enough without the input of the writer's life and sorrow." Weldon has written autobiography before, of course, and as she says in Mantrapped the flow from her life into her writing has always been open and instinctive. Yet the modern cult of personality requires more. "Have my fiction, have me."

Popular novels today are full of semi-disguised authorial presence, so why not be upfront about it? It is a clever device. But it is a good deal more than that: in Mantrapped, the structure is also the subject matter, for Weldon is engaged in a profound debate with this modern urge towards "autobiography". "Before we learned to account for ourselves in terms of self-realisation and the need for self-expression, we were left with the vague and painful mystery of ourselves." Now that we can make our lives into resolved creations, art is debased currency, and souls change bodies because there is so little to weigh them down. "Postmodernism ... has all but destroyed us," she writes, knowing at the same time that Mantrapped is a postmodern book par excellence, that she is a survivor.

The "survival" gene in women is explored in this book, as is the relationship between creativity and femininity. Weldon implicitly links the mute power of artistic mystique with the enforced silence of the pre-feminist era, and is ambivalent about post-feminist freedoms: women have the right to speak nowadays, but do they know what they really want to say? As always, she is preoccupied with the peculiar mystery - which changes, but does not go away - of how to live as a woman. She comes to no conclusions in this rich, sad, life-affirming book; but she has never considered the question so wisely.


A cheerful port-and-lemon girl
(Filed: 26/09/2004)

Claudia FitzHerbert reviews Mantrapped by Fay Weldon.

"The whole problem with autobiography is that you know the plot in advance. You are trying to wrest real life into narrative, obliged by `truth, reality' to stick to the synopsis."

This complaint, occurring as it does 100 pages into Mantrapped, serves more as an explanation than a warning. Fay Weldon's last book, Auto da Fay, was a memoir that read as though it were fiction. Her latest is a deranged composite in which the continuing story of Fay Weldon is spliced with a novel about a soul swap between an old-fashioned man's woman and a fresh-minted new man.

Trisha, a feckless, free-spirited lottery winner fallen on hard times, is a vintage Weldon character. Peter Watson, the man whose body Trisha inhabits after a brush past on a stairway, is a less familiar invention. Weldon writes in relation to her weedy protagonist: "men of the Newer Age have to be learned: they are not the ones I grew up with. Men of the Former Age tended to be without emotional conscience, like George Barker, or Ted Hughes or my husband of many years, Ron, but at least they produced art."

It may be that she has not learned quite enough. Peter, a defence expert, makes little impression except as a foil for Doralee, his crosspatch girlfriend, who is the brainy, ruthless counterpart to the flaky, warm-hearted Trisha. Better-drawn than any of these three are the less central figures of a call-girl turned dry-cleaner and her Albanian bandit husband. The absence of understanding between these two, combined with a suggestion of affection, makes for a troubling portrait. The fact that they don't speak to one another is an advantage, for no one has ever spoken to anyone else the way Weldon's characters talk to one another. This puppeteer is not a ventriloquist.

Trisha's story is constantly interrupted by the narrative of Fay Weldon and her marriage to Ron Weldon, who entered her life at the end of Auto da Fay. Just as in the earlier book the author presented herself as the dull but sane member of a frail and fanciful family of three (mother and sister), so here she portrays herself as a cheerful port-and-lemon girl whose accidental route to writing was through advertising.

Ron Weldon was the artist of the union, the man of vision and bohemian integrity, who threw away his paints on the grounds that it was not possible to be a good artist and a good husband. He proceeded, in this account, to be an antiques dealer and a pretty rotten husband, kipping in the shop whenever his wife's success became too galling. She humoured him, unplugging the television whenever some particularly remunerative piece of writing was about to be broadcast, and moving to Somerset on his whim.

How the marriage came to a sudden, ugly end with a little help from a New Age therapist is a story that has already been told in novel form. In Mantrapped, the blame game shifts a little – Ron, it turns out, was already in love with someone else at the time of the therapist's intervention. But if his leaving was more conventional than it first appeared, his death from a blocked artery on the day his divorce came through is placed firmly at the door of New Age mantras about medical non-intervention.

The author remarried a week later – the date had already been set – but that is as much as we hear about her second husband. It may be that she is saving up for her next "truer than truth" piece of fiction, which will, like Mantrapped, be broken up by shards of plainer truth memoir.

The whole problem of autobiography, as defined by Weldon, is a problem for the writer, not the reader. We would settle, happily enough, for the story of her life without trimmings called Trisha. It's the author who can't, or won't, commit. In which case, let her stick to her vocation as an intermittently persuasive fabulist, spinning tales about made-up creatures with silly names and even sillier patterns of speech. For in the end it's the children, as always, who suffer most from the uncertainty. Trisha and Doralee et al need their author's full attention if they are to have any sort of life.

The continuing story of Fay Weldon can be left, after all, to some more dependable official biographer.


Stick to the fictions
(Filed: 28/09/2004)

Jane Shilling reviews Mantrapped by Fay Weldon.

Two years ago the novelist Fay Weldon published a memoir, Auto da Fay. For decades her novels had displayed a singular ability to capture mid-20th-century female experience in all its rage and savagery and messiness, and make it, somehow, captivating. In her memoir she put the same skill to work on the raw material of her own life.

The effect was as clever, mannered and attractive as any of her fictions, but more troubling, because one was continually aware of the missing layer of invention which had, in the novels, flatteringly separated the reader from crude reality. One finished the memoir beguiled and appalled: rather glad it was over, but longing to know more.

And now there is more. Mantrapped is, says its publicity material, "the continuing story of Fay Weldon". It is also, however, a novel about a woman called Trisha who accidentally swaps souls with a journalist called Peter Watson, whose partner is a fellow journalist, Doralee Thicket.

Trisha, who has squandered a large lottery win, is now 44, destitute and alone in the world. She remains, however, oddly content with life - more so, certainly, than the anxious yuppies, Peter and Doralee. In Auto da Fay, Weldon spoke approvingly of the Kiplingesque ability to deal dispassionately with triumph or disaster. It is a skill that she has put to good use over the years.

Chunks of the Tricia story alternate in this book with gobbets of Weldon memoir, the idea being, I suppose, to make a point about the slippage between the writer's real life and her fictions, and also to draw the readers' attention to the shifting roles of men and women in Weldon's lifetime.

This structure creates a complicated technical challenge and not one to which the author rises entirely gracefully. Weldon's buttonholing, confidential narrative knack retains its customary energy, ensuring that her book unfolds as merrily as gossip over a garden fence. At least, the fictional bit of it does.

The memoir element is less jolly: filled with anecdotes first encountered in Auto da Fay, which do not improve with retelling. The clarity of the earlier book has vanished, Weldon's temper seems to have deteriorated, and a certain coarseness has set in.

Pub-bore aphorisms abound: "Good behaviour never gets a woman anywhere; bad behaviour gets a man everywhere", together with some rather hatefully sensational writing about the mad and the dead, of which Weldon herself seems vaguely ashamed: "If I diminish them for the sake of a neat phrase I am sorry, but I know no other way of containing them and their troubles in my head."

This won't do. There are plenty of ways of dealing with unbearable personal sadness other than writing carelessly about it, and what is rather shocking about this unsavoury mixed salad of fact and fiction is the sense that in her heart, Weldon knows it, but has decided not to care.



FOURTH ESTATE £16.99 (288pp)

Mantrapped by Fay Weldon

On the stairways to heaven and hell

By Susan Jeffreys

01 October 2004

"It's unlucky to cross on the stairs." We lived at the top of the house and Ada lived in the middle. She had control of access to the lavatory and the front door. Ada had the words "They shall not pass" engraved on her heart. Indeed, we often did not pass, hopping up and down from foot to foot, desperate to get the khazi. I thought Ada made up the superstition of the stairs just to spite us. Now I learn from Fay Weldon - and I have learnt much from Fay Weldon over the years - that it really is unlucky to cross on the stairs. The soul of the person going up can cross with the soul of the person going down.

Peter is lean, young, clever and works for a newspaper. He's a facts man, with a speciality in weapons of mass destruction. Trisha is a failed, ageing actress, who won the lottery, lost the money and is now living in reduced circumstances above a dry cleaners. It's on the steps, leading to her miserable flat, that the two souls transmute.

That's the starting point for the novel side of Mantrapped, but it's not all that goes on between Weldon's new covers. While the novel's characters climb through the twists and turns of their story, she charts the ups and downs of her own life. The two narratives are forever crossing, and souls passing, through that strangely thin membrane that separates fact from fiction.

Weldon's fiction is full of fancy that, years on, becomes fact. Write something, she finds, however bizarre, and eventually it will happen. Her books are also, as she now realises, full of warnings to herself. Her fictional characters desperately signalled to her what was going on in her real world, but she paid them no heed.

Trisha, now in Peter's body, looks down at her new hands - they are big, hairy and useful; they bewilder her. Fay Weldon's hands are like her mother's - strong and practical. Through the ruthlessly honest, autobiographical pages of this book, her hands scrub floors, wring out washing, rear children and get on with the practical stuff. The same hands scribble and type, turning out her modern gothic tales of she-devils, clones, of life upstairs and life downstairs.

Strange things do happen, Weldon warns as she earns the money, pays the bills and stacks the washing. Her husband of 30 years, who was unfaithful, died the day their divorce came through. Her mother went from weaving reed baskets on the Cornish moors to directing Tube trains at Gloucester Road.

Sylvia Plath wept and suffered round the corner from her chaotic, seemingly happy home. Strange presences lurk on the stairs of houses she has lived in; the logical boundaries of the real world warp, bend and break down. That's why this brilliant, innovative book, this rich mix of fact and fiction, is so compelling. Fay never tries to be fey.

I am back in the house where Ada once controlled the middle stairs. A practical man lives in her room now. He likes machines and numbers. He mends things with common sense and tools and does not believe in fancy or superstition. "Don't pass on the stairs," he said to me just the other day; "it's unlucky."


Two halves don’t make a whole
Sara Maitland

By Fay Weldon
Fourth Estate, £16.99, pp.267, ISBN:0007194536

What on earth is a ‘high concept novel’? For the expression to have any meaning you’d have to have a low concept novel, a medium concept novel and even a no concept novel. How high? Compared to? It doesn’t make sense.

Nonetheless this is one. (In fairness to Fay Weldon she does not say so; the blurb writer does.) From the evidence I can only deduce that ‘high concept’ means ‘bit of a mish-mash’. Mantrapped is half of a novel and half of an autobiography plus author’s commentary on writing the (half) novel. The idea is that in our celebrity culture there can no longer be a ‘hidden’ author. Publicity, profiles, photographs, reviewers’ personal speculations and gossip all do their bit to ferret out the author’s ‘real’ self — so in all honesty the author herself needs to come clean and tell all.

In one sense it is true of course. ‘Confessional’ writing is extremely fashionable at the moment and imaginative literature is not. Fiction has somehow failed its readers (or vice versa) and we crave something that passes as truth. We seem to have lost the knack of reading the bigger picture from the narrative’s specific particulars. It is a serious cultural loss too, but I am not convinced by Mantrapped that the solution is to insert chunks of soi-disant ‘truth’ into a fiction of flamboyant invention.

The basis of the plot for the novel half is rather fun: a man and a woman cross on a flight of stairs (traditionally unlucky) and their souls swap bodies. ‘Souls’ here means personality, memory and all those physical habits that aren’t secondary sexual characteristics. They both know what has happened surprisingly fast, and go back to his house for his girlfriend to sort it all out — Orlando meets Feydeau farce sort of thing. It could have been a jolly romp, with some acute Weldonesque social commentary on gender difference to provide gravitas. The protagonists, Peter, Trisha and Doralee, are cunningly presented and there are some seriously funny scenes.

But it never really has a chance to take off because Weldon keeps butting in to tell us the truth about herself. Unfortunately I cannot believe in this character, in this bouncy innocent who just writes as she feels, loves her treacherous husband and certainly never wants to be famous. She gives her own game away on p. 213: ‘I did not make the mistake of believing that the person interviewed was “me”. The public figure was a fictional character.’ Exactly. If she didn’t believe in herself, why should I? Now this might be an immensely clever post-modernist joke, but in that case we are back to the invisible author. So what was the point in leaving Trisha and Peter half-baked?

All in all, and despite one of the great ‘appalling family dinner party scenes’, I couldn’t help but feel that Weldon was trying to be too clever by half here. It isn’t even such a new idea: Lawrence Sterne did it better in Tristram Shandy 245 years ago.


THE TLS n.º 5302, NOVEMBER 12, 2004


Alex Clark

Fay Weldon


268 pp. Fourth Estate.

0 00 719453 6

US: Grove  0 8021 1787 2

The continuing adventures of Fay Weldon, reprised here in a part-fictional and part-autobiographical book that forms a sequel to her first volume of memoirs, Auto da Fay, require something of a recap. This is a small courtesy to reader that Weldon cheerfully and without exasperation provides from time to time during the course of Mantrapped. listing characters both real and imaginary in bold type and summarizing their history and current positions in brief to-the-point sentences.

So: Fay, now in her twenties, has escaped both the New Zealand of her birth and an early, luckless marriage to a vaguely peculiar headmaster. She has a child (Nicolas), a married lover (“the Dane”) and a slowly prospering career as an advertising copywriter (“Go to work on an egg”). Life is not altogether easy, and there is a certain amount of weeping (see the chapter entitled “Times I have cried in public”), but on the horizon looms Ron Weldon, the man to whom she is to be married for thirty years, with whom she will beget further children, and who will drop dead on the day their decree absolute arrives. Ron’s advent will not entirely mark an end to the tears, but it will usher in a certain sort of unstable stability, which is the only kind Weldon really understands, and the only kind about which she is really interested in writing.

It is what Weldon gives us in the fictional scrap that runs between her reminiscences of marriage, motherhood, domestic servitude, emergent feminism and, above all, writing. Here, she brings to life riches-to-rags lottery winner Trisha, a round-heeled, henna-haired who has been reduced to living above a dry cleaner’s. When she chances to pass non-aggressive, testosterone-lite Peter on the stairs one day, they both come over all weird and Weldon, and their souls swap. Unexpectedly, once the shock has warn off, neither of them minds too much and, indeed, they find each other’s bodies something of a hoot; the real victim is Peter’s partner, Doralee, who doesn’t know which one to invite to bed with her.

Mantrapped the novella is witty, outlandish and provocative and the latest in a long line of similarly puckish fictions, but it has the additional force supplied by its author’s concurrent meditations on the overlap between reality and fantasy. “All these monstrous acts I have written, all the murders, crimes I have conceived, are as good as done”, writes Weldon, half-ruefully, half-defiantly, also noting that the novels that she has written can be seen as messages she was frantically writing to herself – and ignoring. What motivated her to press on regardless is partly what she examines in this book; it is also something that casts light on the sense of breathlessness and hurry of her writing  style itself.

That convergence of style and circumstance is made patently obvious: if Weldon weems to write quickly, it is because she is often to be found scribbling away on the backs of envelopes in the interstices of domestic and familial life. A television play about a prostitute was written in the loo; one of Weldon’s children thought she might go bonkers when he overheard her talking to herself, but in fact she was imply reading her dialogue out aloud. Divided duty apart, there was also the abiding sense that she needed to play her own success down in order to preserve marital harmony. On the night the BBC broadcast the first episode of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, she took the fuse out of the plug and pretended the set had broken. Mantrapped is full of such instances of Fay Weldon’s reluctant but long-ingrained  attempts of self-effacement. Both her fictional and autobiographical persona tell us that hey were never likely to work long-term. That was bad news for her marriage, but good news for the readers.


More from Fay, and another look at female bonding

By Diane White  |  December 12, 2004

Fay Weldon's "Mantrapped" is a curiosity, both a novel and a second volume of autobiography, presented alternately. Readers have come to expect the unconventional from this talented chronicler of what has been called "the man-woman thing." In "Mantrapped" she presents what she calls, with pointed humor, "the new Reality novel." Nancy Thayer's "The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again" is pure fiction, but the problems her characters face -- horrible in-laws -- are all too real, adding some needed emotional weight to this entertaining novel.

Weldon had always argued that fiction and autobiography were separate, she tells us. She resisted the perception that her fiction reflected her own experience: "If any of what I wrote was true I would be in prison or dead." But in recent years she has come to see the relationship between fiction and reality in a different light: "Nearly everything you write about, you realize one day, has its roots somewhere in the past."

These roots are not obvious, as readers of this book may discover, but that's one of the tricks of fiction. The novel portion of "Mantrapped" is a fanciful, satirical tale of gender confusion. Trisha, raddled, feckless, and 44 ("There are elements of me in Trish," Weldon writes), won a fortune in the lottery and ran through it all. Now she is trying to adjust to a life of penury as a part-time seamstress. When Trisha passes handsome young Peter on the narrow stairs that lead to her flat, they exchange souls. Doralee, Peter's partner, attempts to sort out the situation, providing Weldon with plenty of opportunity to comment on the contradictions of gender and the ever-changing relationship between the sexes.

The autobiography is by far the most interesting part of "Mantrapped." It picks up more or less where Weldon's comparatively conventional first volume, "Auto da Fay," left off. But then it hops around, moving back and forth in time as one memory triggers another and the author airs her thoughts on all sorts of subjects. It's a kind of literary collage that coheres into a lively and eccentric self-portrait.

Weldon traces her development as a writer, but her emphasis is on love, marriage, and motherhood. Her tone is nostalgic and rueful as she leads readers through semi-bohemian literary London in the 1950s and '60s and forward into the new age, such as it is. She doesn't dwell on the difficulty of combining writing with all her other responsibilities, and she downplays her success and her celebrity, as if to do otherwise might bring her bad luck, as perhaps she believes that it did. "Good reviews and public attention did not help my marriage," she writes. It came as a surprise when her husband ended their 30-year marriage. Ron Weldon, artist/musician/antique dealer, didn't like being "Mr. Fay Weldon." He was, she writes, a man of the "Former Age," the sort of men she grew up with, men she describes as being "without emotional conscience." Ted Hughes is her prime example.

"We were all pre-feminists then," she writes. "It did not occur to us that if men misbehaved, the answer was to have nothing more to do with them."

Weldon's early novels were dismissed by a literary neighbor, the American poet Louis Simpson, who, offering "constructive" criticism, told her that they were not novels at all since they lacked shape and form. Readers disagreed. They saw their lives and their concerns and the changing times and customs reflected in her work. She kept on writing at a furious pace, churning out novel after novel, many of them bestsellers. In "Mantrapped" she continues to write about the sexes with insight, imagination, and wit.

"The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again" revisits the four fearless ladies of a certain age whom Thayer introduced in "The Hot Flash Club," the first of what appears to be a series aimed at the "hen lit" set. This time the original Hot Flashers -- Faye, Marilyn, Shirley, and Alice -- play mostly supporting and advisory roles to four new characters, all plagued by a variety of impossible in-laws.

There's 26-year-old Beth, an academic in love with Sonny, a handsome carpenter whose possessive mother, Bobbie, is determined to undermine the romance. Carolyn, 37, is at long last pregnant, but her happiness is threatened by her elderly and very wealthy father's quickie marriage to scheming young Heather. Julia, 30, is trying to establish a good relationship with her 7-year-old stepdaughter Belinda, who hasn't spoken a word since her mother died two years ago, but Julia's efforts are sabotaged by Agnes, Belinda's bitter maternal grandmother. Polly, 60, is doing her best to help her snobbish, evil-tempered mother-in-law, Claudia, battle cancer. Amy, Polly's health-nut daughter-in-law, fearing her new baby might be exposed via Polly to Claudia's cancer "germs," refuses to let Polly near her grandson.

The four meet in the jacuzzi at Shirley's health retreat, the Haven, and exchange in-law horror stories. In the spirit of the original Hot Flashers, they agree to help one another, and follow through, using secret videos, role-playing, and clandestine surveillance, among other means legal and otherwise. The premise of this female-bonding fest is contrived, but Thayer has the knack of creating likable characters who grapple with problems that will strike a chord with many readers. "The Hot Flash Club Strikes Again" will please fans of "The Hot Flash Club" and may attract a younger audience.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction. 

The Mind-Body Problem

Reviewed by Francesca Delbanco

Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page BW06


By Fay Weldon. Grove. 268 pp. $24

Over the course of her long career, Fay Weldon's novels have earned her the competing reputations of feminist and anti-feminist, champion of women's rights and champion of men's rights, advocate for the underdog and sellout to commercial concerns. It's hard to generalize about the work of any author with nearly 40 books to her name, so it is perhaps safe to say only that Weldon is vast; she contains multitudes. That is precisely what makes her fiction a pleasure to read: With her ever-shifting alliances, she is a writer who has sympathy and affection for all of her characters, but no single one of them is spared her piercing, insightful, razor-like wit. There may be heroes and villains in her books, but they all have complicated and real impulses that humanize them -- reasons for needing $600 Armani blouses, reasons for staying with husbands who throw the occasional punch. Her social satire is never cruel or one-sided, and it is almost always acute.

That said, Mantrapped, her most recent venture, is a strange little book. Half-novel and half-memoir, it is made up of chapters that switch back and forth between narrative and musings from Weldon -- on her past, her real-life relationships, her career, the book she is in the middle of writing (and you're in the middle of reading). This alternating structure renders the novel a stop-and-start affair: One minute Weldon is spinning together a plot, the next she has spiraled off into a reverie about her ex-husband's taste in real estate, and then she is back to the plot, picking up her characters where she left them. The connections between the novel and the commentary are sometimes quite clear, as when the protagonist's teary breakdown is followed by a section called "Times I Have Cried in Public." Sometimes they are less obvious, as when a scene from the novel about the differences between men and women's bodies occasions an autobiographical vignette about a 1971 camping trip to France. The novel and the autobiography are each delightful in its own way, but combined they somehow amount to less than the sum of their parts.

The plot of Mantrapped, when it bothers to have one, concerns the supernatural switching of souls by Trisha Perle, a former actress and lottery winner who has managed to fritter away her £3 million windfall, and Peter Watson, a handsome, well-heeled researcher at one of London's daily newspapers. By chance Trisha and Peter (who are otherwise strangers) cross paths at their local dry cleaner's, where Trisha does pick-up mending in exchange for a break on her rent and where Peter comes to settle a delivery dispute his girlfriend Doralee has gotten into with the owner of the shop. As they brush past each other on the steps, Trisha's soul somehow winds up in Peter's body, and Peter's winds up in Trisha's. There we have it: a man's brain in a woman's body, a woman's brain in a man's. And if this situation sounds reminiscent of any number of Disney movies, rest assured that Weldon is versed enough in popular culture and reality television to know all about them.

Weldon sometimes uses the premise of Mantrapped as a jumping-off point for passages about serious topics: class, gentrification, sex, marriage. Her perceptions on these subjects are as withering and accurate as ever. For example, when the owner of the dry-cleaning shop assesses Peter, who has come in to complain about poor service, she says: "His lot affected an accent she would be ashamed of, speaking through their noses and hardly opening their mouths. . . . People today were at pains to let the world know they belonged to the new world order. Theirs was not an existence of marriage, domesticity and trouble. Theirs was one in which no one smoked, no one married, and others cleaned the clothes, the better to maximize their lifespan."

When Weldon stays focused on her narrative, she is as shrewd and penetrating a literary observer as one could hope to read. But Mantrapped often rambles from topic to topic, and the juxtaposition of memoir and fiction feels too much like free association to be satisfying. Another installment of Weldon's captivating autobiography, Auto da Fay, may be warranted, but here the reflections on her literary celebrity, her career's arc and the evolution of her understanding of writing seem a bit self-indulgent, and they don't do much to improve or deepen the novel at hand.

Francesca Delbanco's first novel, "Ask Me Anything," was published last winter.


December 11-17 2004 Vol 196 No 3370 -

Big Sister

by Stephanie Johnson

MANTRAPPED, by Fay Weldon (Fouth Estate, $34.99).

If all the big stories have been told – if the sexes have finished battling it out, if white guilt has been milked for all it's worth, if rags-to-riches tales are more morally expounded the other way around – then perhaps blurring the genres is all we're left with. Our screens feed us a nauseating diet of docu-dramas, drama-mentaries and even – wait for it – irritainment, which may be defined as entertainment so irritating it galvanises the viewer. More and more books are being published where the authorial stance is a self-consciously clever shifting of the ground beneath the reader's feet, a kind of adult version of the four-year-old's realisation of the power of the lie. Where will it all end?

We have a way to go yet. Fay Weldon's latest offering brings us, just when you thought you'd understood that memoirs and autobio-graphies give you the truth only as far as the writer will allow it, the reality novel. It presents conventionally enough, introducing us in the short first chapter to Trisha, a middle-aged lottery winner who has been profligate with her prize-money. The first intervention from the author comes early, with the second chapter headed "Writer's Note", setting up the convention Weldon uses for the rest of the book. In alternate chapters, Trisha takes a slum flat and works part-time for her landlady, who operates downstairs a laundromat and mending service. Soon after, Trisha meets Peter Watson on the stairs, he coming up as she goes down, and as they pass a transference of souls takes place.

"Novels alone are not enough," Weldon tells us, "Self-revelation is required … Best put your faith in the new reality novel … the reality novel threads the life through the fiction." The leaping of souls is a metaphor for the "crossover between the novelist's actual life and the alternative reality presented by the novelist".

Weldon seems to accept that the reality novel is about as intellectually challenging as its television cousin, and introduces each new character's name in bold. She also reminds us of the state of play each time we return to the fictional story, just in case we've forgotten. The danger perhaps is not so much that the simple story will have slipped the reader's mind, more that s/he will skim those parts. The metaphysical dilemma of Trisha, Peter and his partner Doralee is amusing and compelling, but Weldon's lively and generous account of her own life makes far more interesting reading. There is also more of it than there is of the fiction. Midway, Weldon remarks, "Notice how the story of Trisha, Doralee and Peter is slowing up?"

Weldon shows us her 14-year-old self weeping as she leaves her never-to-be-seen-again father on the Wellington quayside, introduces us to her poetry-loving and eccentric mother who could quote pages of Tennyson even at the age of 95, and to her beloved sister Jane who died young of cancer. The men in her life, particularly Ron Weldon, her husband of over 30 years, are treated mischievously but affectionately. The marriage, it seems, was often troubled. Like many men, then and now, Ron disliked his wife's success and public personae, but was unable to articulate this. As is widely known, he left Fay on the urging of his therapist. On the day their divorce came through, in 1994, Ron died. This seems so much like an event in a classic Weldon novel that the reader could be forgiven for wondering if this fact is manipulated.

Late in the book, her memoir Auto da Fay rates a fairly casual mention. Mantrapped, we are informed, is the second volume. If it has a weakness it is that the reader must come to it with an affection for Weldon's work already in place. Unlike even the worst of reality TV, it is not "stand alone" – it is richly connected to a substantial oeuvre of novels, short stories, plays and television drama.




The Diva of Desperate Housewives

Fay Weldon's perverse power.

By Claire Dederer

Updated Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2005, at 7:53 AM PT

 Fay Weldon's books have acquired a tarnish over the past couple of decades. When her first few novels came out in the early 1970s, Weldon was hailed as a scrappy feminist and a devil-may-care stylist. Somewhere along the way, though, her politics became strident and mercurial (in Britain she's called the "fickle godmother of feminism"), and her subversive narratives ”peopled by clones, ghosts, and spouses running each other over with cars”grew downright wacky. But to hell with good taste. I'm reading Fay Weldon and liking it.

Her critics have tended to level four strikes against her. One: She's a sellout. In 2001, she wrote a novel commissioned by the jeweler Bulgari, in which she was contractually bound to mention the company favorably at least 12 times. The critical world harrumphed like a roomful of pipe-smoking professors: Most irregular! Two: She's too down-market. One of her novels, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, was made into a Meryl Streep film—not one of the classy ones with La Streep in schmattes and an Eastern European accent, but a blowsy comedy replete with shoulder pads and Roseanne Barr. Three: She is too readable. Her books zip along with murders and descriptions of clothes and lots of very realistic female chitchat. Four: She is too prolific, with nearly 30 works of fiction to her name.

Her new one, Mantrapped, is more of the same ”and then some. It's a funky hybrid of novel and memoir. The fictional story line follows two strangers, a man and a woman who meet accidentally on the stairs above a dry-cleaning shop and mysteriously swap souls. The two of them descend upon the man's unwitting girlfriend, and the three live together in a bizarre love triangle while they attempt to sort out who's who and what's what. Interlarded with the novel is Weldon's memoir, which picks up in the mid-'60s, where her previous autobiography, the wonderful Auto Da Fay (2003), left off. We toggle back and forth: a chapter of the novel, where the characters endure therapy sessions and exorcisms in an effort to undo their condition, then a chapter of memoir, recounting the breakdown of Weldon's marriage and the fate of her family in the same frank, nostalgic, slightly crotchety tone that made Auto Da Fay such an unexpected delight.


Mantrapped ”with its half-baked parallel structure and its reliance on a Freaky Friday-ish gimmick ”seems to be a symptom of Weldon's attitude toward her critics, her public, and her own legacy. At the time of the Bulgari controversy, she told the New York Times, "'When the approach came through, I thought, 'Oh no, dear me, I am a literary author. You can't do this kind of thing; my name will be mud forever.  But then after a while I thought, 'I don't care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.' "

Let her name be mud. For the author who cakes the world in mud ”every guy is a bad guy in her novels ”it's a fate that in a way seems only fair. Yet the smearing of Weldon's name, whether wrought by her critics or by her own rickety plotting and over-the-top characterizations, should not obscure her literary antecedents. She is actually writing in a great tradition: the British domestic comedy. Bitter, truth-speaking, and very funny portraits of domestic life have emerged from the pens of Englishwomen for over a century. Jane Austen hovers in the background, an acerbic ghost occasionally flaring into wickedness: Mr. Collins' windbaggery, Emma's myopia. Ada Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, wrote hilariously bitchy novels about the marriage of a terribly mismatched couple she called the "little Ottleys." E.F. Benson, the author of the gloriously mean-spirited Mapp and Lucia novels, wasn't a woman, but he exercised himself tirelessly over middle-aged women throwing dinner parties, so we won't be picky. Nancy Mitford softened the genre a bit, giving us more glamour, more lovable characters, but that same wonderful poking at the weak spots of a marriage, a house, a family, a friendship.

Clearly, Weldon is no Jane Austen. But she shares with these writers an obsessive interest in the domestic sphere, and a way of projecting a satirical authorial presence over that sphere. Austen did it with a dry, allusive irony that punctured conventions and exposed delusions. Weldon does it by busting into the narrative to comment, usually derisively, on a social world run amok. "Nothing surprises me anymore," she'll muse when a character behaves badly; or "Blame the gods of misrule," she'll instruct when the plot gets wildly chaotic. Weldon harangues us. It's her pointed, blaming finger that makes her books so uniquely perverse ”and peculiarly exhilarating, because she's so ideologically incorrect in her excoriations of domestic messes.

As has been noted by many of her critics, her women are victims, forever cheated upon, presumed upon, dumped upon. Unlike (most) real-life women, though, they spring from victimhood to deadly action. They are wont to become murderesses and arsonists: desperate housewives, indeed. Hers is a feminism that seems not to like women very much. Men should be rounded up and shot, that's a given. But women aren't any picnic, either. For Weldon, strange creature, is both misanthropist and misogynist. She doesn't hate humans as a race, she hates men and women, as different, specific groups, for different, specific reasons.

She doesn't mean it as a compliment when she opines in Mantrapped, "Women are so vivid and mettlesome these days, so vigorous in their being.  I am surprised they do not subsume the whole male race." Meanwhile, the men in her novels are either chinless, like Mantrapped's Peter, or cheaters, like the husband in her novel Worst Fears (1996). No one is safe in Weldon's world, and her implicit message is that we're next. Our cozy houses will break apart, our husbands will leave us, our neat lives will collapse. And Weldon is not afraid to let us know what she thinks, which is something that never ”or rarely”gets said in our therapeutic era: It's our own fault. She writes, "Down among the women  [w]e live at floor level, washing and wiping. If we look upward, it's not towards the stars or the ineffable, it's to dust the tops of the windows. We have only ourselves to blame."

There's an odd little passage in Mantrapped where Weldon comes clean, or so she would have us think: "All these monstrous acts I have written, all the murders, crimes I have conceived, are as good as done. I who was accustomed to saying earnestly to my audience 'If you want to write a novel you must lose your good opinion of yourself,' should repent." Then she proceeds to end the book with a wicked drive-by shooting. Weldon, for one, may be willing to accept some blame ”but she's not about to renounce her power. She is in love with it. And it's her power we find irresistible. Maybe especially when she uses it against us.

Claire Dederer lives in Seattle and frequently writes for the New York Times Book Review.

The Washington Times

Trading places, fictions

By Carol Herman

    By Fay Weldon
    Grove, $24, 320 pages

Fay Weldon has built her estimable career writing outrageously forthright and funny books. Lauded as an icon of feminism, sometimes against her own will, she has arrived at a point in her life where fiction and nonfiction projects alike offer her an opportunity to tell readers who she is and who she is not.
    In 2002, the author wrote the highly entertaining and revealing "Auto Da Fay," an autobiography that tracked two failed marriages, career highs and lows and filial bonds that variously baffled, amused, disappointed, and anchored her. It was a work of the kind of audacity and playfulness that took readers to the nearly cringe-making outer fringe of self-revelation. It was propelled and saved in no small way by the author's unfailing good humor and smarts.

    Now the author is back to fiction — sort of. The basic plot of "Mantrapped" is this: Two people, a man and a woman, pass each other on the stairs above their local dry cleaners in London and miraculously and unaccountably exchange souls. In an instant, Peter, a young journalist out on an errand for his demanding young wife finds himself living in the body of the somewhat older Trisha, who for a time was a lottery winner and a celebrity but at the moment is down on her luck and working at the laundry where the soul swap occurs.
    Peter is startled and delighted by the sensation of having breasts. Trisha is amused by other things, not the least of which is the ability to see a little better than she had and think more clearly. The swap itself provides the occasion for many hilarious situations, starting with Doralee, Peter's young wife who ultimately must discern who to love (and bed): either the gentle Trisha lodged in Peter's body or the fussier but appealing Peter now stuck in a body with strikingly smaller hands and feet.
    As amusing as the story line is, it operates merely as scaffolding for the author's ongoing examination of her career, marriages, motherhood, the Seventies, the Nineties and the state of things now. Though the book is part-fiction, part-memoir, there is a point of merger that may well anger purists who believe that the best novels have their authors at a respectable distance. Even Mrs. Weldon admits that the merger of fiction with her personal reality represents a sea change in her own attitudes about what books should do, and readers can watch her never-stopping analytic mind tweaking the issue thusly:
    "My suspicion is this — that just as one day Peter and Trisha cross on the stairs, so one day there is bound to be an actual crossover between the novelist's actual life and the alternative reality as presented by that novelist. That the times have finally and sadly come to this, that a novel simply no longer feels meaty enough without the writer's life and sorrows. All my writing life I have hotly argued that fiction and autobiography are separate. 'Good Lord,' I have been in the habit of saying at literary festivals and in interviews where writers are so frequently these days required to bare their souls, 'if any of what I wrote was true I would be in prison or dead.' Now I can see that I ought to have been in prison or dead, if I were to get my just desserts, that is to say, if to lust in your heart is as sinful as the act itself, as St. Paul says. All these monstrous acts I have written, all the murders, crimes, I have conceived, are as good as done . . .
    "'Madame Bovary, c'est moi, Flaubert famously says, giving the game away. I daresay Chaucer had an affair with the Wife of Bath, gat teeth and all. But Chaucer's not going to declare, that either.
    "Just as the world of screen and airwaves blends and melds into real life, so too, today must the creations of the printed page. There are elements of me in Trisha, and parts of . . . Peter in every man I have every known. Mind you, men of the Newer Age have to be learned: they are not the ones I grew up with. Men of the Former Age tended to be without emotional conscience, like George Barker, or Ted Hughes or my husband of many years Ron, but at least they produced art."
    Truth be told, the author is not easy on men. (Ted Hughes is raked over the coals more than a few times in the book.) But neither is she easy on women. This is a book, like so many of her others, that depicts the ongoing war between the sexes. There are no winners. And neither is the writer gratified at speaking engagements when some sentiment she utters construed as anti-man, is cheered loudly by the audience, especially when those cheering most loudly are men.
    There is very little that escapes the author's notice in these pages, and she is deadly honest about those events in her life that linger with her still: her early estrangement from her father, a bad marriage to a dull man 20 years older than she, miscarriages, the collapse of Ron Weldon's antiques business that put the family on a rocky road, 15 years in psychoanalysis, her suicidal older sister's death from melanoma, her hot and cold reception by the British literary establishment, with an unusual cameo appearance by American writer Louis Simpson.
    As she wanders through the slowly evolving story of Peter and Trisha that never ceases to engage and amuse, she also takes time to evaluate each of her novels, and some of the insights are jaunty and — unselfconsciously — light.
    "Those early present tense novels of mine were written in the present tense not because I had thought about it, but because I had started writing in play form and then, novelizing what I had written. It worked well enough. So well that in the meanwhile the Gods of the past tense have all but fled. Even history documentaries on TV prefer the immediacies of the present tense to any serious consideration of the past. 'Henry VIII strides through the palace in a temper. His wife is betraying him. 'Cut off her head,' he yells'"
    So what is Fay Weldon up to? She experiments. She reveals. She tells a story and blazes forward with little domestic apercus that simply do not appear in other fictions I can think of with the same satiric bite or joy. My favorite: "Those who have not had children believe in nurture more than nature." And in this funny and surprising book with "trapped" in its title, the most joyous fact of all is that no one is, utterly.





September 10, 2005


With a hey nanny, no

Reviewed by Jane Shilling

by Fay Weldon
Fourth Estate, £15.99; 288pp
0870 1608080

EVERY SO OFTEN, WHEN thinking about modern women’s fiction, I find myself overcome with a kind of vertigo. What if, one day, there just weren’t any more things to write about? What if the female condition in all its infinite variety turned out to be, on the contrary, quite finite and that at some point in the future, the mother lode of work, family, sex, children and feelings simply expired? Fortunately, whenever I am in danger of sinking into this melancholy vein of contemplation, along comes another novel by Fay Weldon to reassure me.

Weldon’s style, that virtuoso confection of intelligence and insinuating garrulousness, achieves a kind of ideal equilibrium between therapy and gossip. It has all the irresistible allure of a really good bitch (but you don’t hate yourself for reading it, the way you do with chick lit) and the voluptuous resonance of a deeply self-indulgent bout of self-analysis (but you don’t feel all hollow and wrung out when it’s over).

Weldon’s latest bout of industry down the word-mine has produced She May Not Leave, a novel about an Eastern European nanny who brings ruin to a nice young London family. Weldon has excellent sensors for the turbulences of modern emotional airspace, and the timing of her book, following the Jude/ Sienna/nanny hoo-ha, is satisfyingly slick.

Her characters — Hattie, a sensible, bookish girl from a raffish background with a cloud of Pre-Raphaelite red-gold hair and a job in a literary agency, and her partner, Martin, a journalist with a social conscience and political ambitions — are nice, well-meaning young people who live in an “economical, comfortable, first-time buyers’ house in London’s Kentish Town” (a rare example, this, of Weldon’s sensors on the blink. Not many first-time buyers’ houses — or even tiny flats — in Kentish Town these days . . .) They have a new baby, Kitty, whom they had both intended that Hattie should care for, but Hattie, like many first-time mothers, finds a chasm opening between the ideal and the reality of having a baby, and wants urgently to go back to work. A nanny, Agnieszka Wyszynska, presents herself, recommended by one of Hattie’s colleagues. She turns out to be a treasure: self-effacing, intelligent, organised, not too pretty but not scarily introverted either.

Quite soon even Martin, who had been strongly opposed to the idea of a nanny, is converted. At which point, of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

The ending is a shocker, not so much because of what happens, but because of what it appears to reveal about Weldon’s world view. There is always an invigorating whiff of brimstone in her writing, but this particular novel is permeated by a cynicism, a sense of the overweening power of human selfishness so bitter as quite to overpower the sugary intimacy of the narrative voice.



September 25, 2005

Fiction: She May Not Leave by Fay Weldon


by Fay Weldon

Fourth Estate £15.99 pp284

Frances Watt, the 72-year-old narrator of Fay Weldon’s 25th novel, has been married three times, “So I like to think that I have some knowledge of the ways of men, in the house and out of it,” she tells us. She isn’t afraid to share what she has learnt. Men, she has found, “want what other men have, not what they can have for the asking”. Men “ tend to be deaf to uncomfortable truths”. And best not get into men’s behaviour in cars: “If you ask men not to go so fast they go faster, especially if you are married to them.”

And yet in the teeth of common sense and the accumulated wisdom of every previous Weldon novel, Frances’s 33-year-old granddaughter Hattie has entered into a relationship with a man. She has set up home with a bien-pensant leftie called Martyn, whose contribution to the care of their young daughter has confined itself to offering child-rearing advice. “Research shows that babies with full-time mothers in their first year are at an advantage intellectually and emotionally,” he tells Hattie, who wants to go back to work. Instead of punching him on the nose, she hires a Polish au pair called Agnieszka. “I hope Hattie understands the complexities of having an au pair in the house,” worries Frances, thinking, one suspects, about men. “If introducing a dog or a cat into a marriage can be difficult, how much more so a young woman?”

But Agnieszka turns out to be a domestic goddess. Even though this is a deeply suspicious role in any Weldon fiction, Agnieszka’s employers don’t seem in the least alarmed by her perfection. Before her arrival the family was living on frozen peas and tinned tuna; Martyn and Hattie’s sex life had dwindled to never. Within a week of Agnieszka’s moving in, the house is stocked with delicious snacks, Hattie has been liberated from drudgery and has returned to her stimulating job at a London literary agency; her breasts have been liberated from feeding the baby and have returned to being erotic signifiers. The au pair has made herself indispensable. Frances tries not to speculate about what sinister intentions must lie behind such a grotesque display of housewifery.

It transpires, of course, that Agnieszka is not the paragon she seems. The longer she spends in the household, the more fabulous the story becomes. Martyn behaves badly (men!); Agnieszka behaves worse; the twist has Hattie neatly revealed as the worst behaved of them all. Weldon tells modern fairy tales, really, that are untroubled by humdrum plausibility. Her saving grace, in this book as in her others, is also her greatest weakness: her free hand with airy generalisations. Her carefree sloganeering can be maddeningly fatuous, occasionally making the reader feel as though he or she is stuck behind a car covered in bumper stickers. And yet it is her unfashionable willingness to risk a wild assertion that gives rise to much of this novel’s familiar, snarky charm.


She May Not Leave

Fay Weldon
284pp, Fourth Estate, £15.99

0870 1608080

From au pair to no pair
(Filed: 19/09/2005)

Amanda Craig reviews She May Not Leave by Fay Weldon.

When you are living in domestic hell after your au pair has left, as I am at present, it is comforting to read about your own situation in a Fay Weldon novel. Her voice, at once satirical and sympathetic, is that of an older woman friend whose advice is often as unpalatable as it is invaluable. Where a previous generation found her novels therapeutic during the traumas of jealousy or divorce, the new one may find She May Not Leave rather too bracing, for it is about what you risk when you return to work and hand your child over to another woman to care for.

Hattie and Martyn are a well-meaning, intelligent, unmarried young couple who are struggling to cope with the unplanned arrival of their baby. They live in a two-bedroom house in Kentish Town and are struggling on Martin's salary. Handsome, pre-Raphaelite Hattie has lost her looks, may lose her job and "will not settle easily into domesticity". They have no sex life because the baby doesn't sleep, their food is horrible and their house a chaos of laundry.

All of which is hideously familiar to working mothers. The solution is for Hattie and Martyn to employ a young Eastern European to do the boring bits of being a wife and mother. Martyn, a Left-wing journalist, is reluctant, but when Agnieszka from Poland arrives, recommended by a colleague of Hattie's, she seems like the domestic goddess they have been yearning for. Intelligent, well-organised and (crucially) not too pretty, she gets the baby to sleep in her room, does housework to perfection and discreetly disappears in the evenings to her belly-dancing classes. At long last, they can have their cake and eat it.

Only Hattie's grandmother Frances, the narrator of this spine-chilling black comedy, has any doubts, and although they are not what we expect, they all turn out to be well-founded. Frances is a genuine bohemian - a New Zealander like Weldon herself, who has also had her cake and eaten it, dumping her own daughter on her mother in order to lead a racy life in the 1960s, when "au pairs were passed around like hot cakes" and mothers seem to have worried less about their children. Nowadays, when households require two incomes until well into a couple's thirties, the stakes are very much higher. As Frances remarks at the end, Hattie is lucky to be alive.

Women have always felt a deep unease about the idea of other women looking after their children, as Victorian novelists and Hollywood scriptwriters know well. She May Not Leave looks particularly pointed in the wake of the celebrity nanny scandals of the Beckhams and Jude Law, but the servant problem in general has been making a comeback in fiction by women this year, with Maggie Gee's My Cleaner featuring a compact less diabolical but almost as disturbing as that of Weldon's. As always, her characters speak perfectly convincing dialogue, while having the depthless detail of figures in a morality play: you can be pleasurably horrified while not really caring that time will bring in its revenges.

It would be unfair to give away too much of the plot, which scissors towards a black and sharp climax. Needless to say, the Polish au pair doesn't even turn out to be Polish - or else she would, thanks to the EU, be working in a café, rather than answering my increasingly desperate advertisements for a nice young woman without a bolt through her eyebrow. Agnieszka's quiet, insinuating ways get her exactly what she wants; the twist, which is almost credible to those covered in baby-sick, is that it also happens to be what Hattie desires.

A consummate satirist, Weldon is still thought of as a feminist writer, in that her best-known works, such as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, dramatise the urge for women to take revenge upon their men. In fact, she now occupies a typically subversive position as far as the sisterhood is concerned, after pointing out uncomfortable truths regarding childcare and rape. This witty, wicked, lethally elegant novel about a very modern predicament held me absolutely gripped in between rushing round with a Hoover, a laundry basket and a frying-pan for the children's tea before working until midnight. It has already been placed on the shelves of my next au pair's room.