The English writer Sebastian Faulks is one of those curious novelists whose predilection for well-told stories and popularity with readers often have seemed impediments to serious regard.

That's a bit unfair because, with its knowing nods to Trollope, Dickens and Tom Wolfe, "A Week in December" -- his ninth work of full-length fiction -- is a formally ambitious, intelligently entertaining, rather provocative novel of contemporary manners. Moreover, while the story is deeply rooted in today's London, if you tweaked a couple of the characters slightly and adjusted some of the social style for local nuance, the author's essential points could just as aptly apply to Manhattan's Upper West Side or, for that matter, Brentwood Park.

In this country, Faulks probably is best known for his so-called Anglo-French trilogy -- "The Girl at the Lion d'Or," the bestselling "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray," which made a rather fine film starring Cate Blanchett. His 2005 novel "Human Traces," an intricate exploration of psychiatry's intellectual and scientific origins, never quite got the attention here it deserved, but his 2007 book, a faux-James Bond novel called "Devil May Care," commissioned by Ian Fleming's estate to commemorate the centenary of his birth, sold in the millions. (About it, the less said the better, though even the late Kingsley Amis took a lucrative crack at writing an approved Bond knockoff under the pseudonym Robert Markham.)

Dinner party plans

"A Week in December" marks both a return to form for Faulks and a bit of a departure, since previously his most notable books have worked their plots out against a historical background. This one is every bit of this moment -- and frequently astringently so.

The plot unwinds across seven days before Christmas 2007. A newly elected member of Parliament's ambitious wife, Sophie Topping, is planning an elaborate holiday dinner party to advance his career. Over the next seven days, Faulks follows several major characters who either are among the invited guests or whose lives intersect with theirs in some crucial way.

There is the loathsome John Veals, a billionaire hedge fund manager plotting his next big score, a marginally legal series of maneuvers that will gut a major international bank. Gabriel Northwood is a bookish young barrister given to reveries on Roth, Bellow and Updike while baffled equally by his lack of success and the handful of briefs that recently have landed on his desk. Through one of these, Gabriel will find a kindred spirit in Jenni Fortune, a daughter of Irish immigrants who makes her living driving a train on the Underground's Circle Line but lives for the literary novels in which she loses herself during every free moment.

There are also Farooq and Nasim al-Rashid, chutney magnates, religious Muslims and big political donors. Farooq is slated to receive royal honors for a career built on lime pickle, and he's worried about whether he'll be able to discuss books with the queen, and so has retained another of the guests -- an odiously vindictive book critic, Ralph Tranter, who also presides over Sophie's posh book club's meetings -- to tutor him on literary matters. Cognizant of the sovereign's tastes, the critic recommends mystery writer Dick Francis to Farooq. (The queen doesn't show up, and Farooq has to make do with Prince Charles.) Meanwhile, the al-Rashids' beloved son, Hassan, has fallen in with radical jihadis and, on the night of the dinner party, is set to participate in the suicide bombing of a mental hospital. Finally, there's an immigrant Polish soccer star, Tadeusz "Spike" Borowski, who is personally obsessed with online dictionaries but stands in for the English obsession for Premier League football.

Not all these characters are as well-developed as one might wish, but Faulks -- who began as a feature writer for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and moved on to become literary editor of the Independent -- has a reporter's keen eye for telling details and a propulsive mastery of narrative that takes full advantage of a structure that, in hands less sure, might come across as a trifle too pat. Suffice to say, the week builds to Sophie's dinner party, which manages to be every bit as gruesome as one would imagine without being in the slightest bit exceptional.

Inner emptiness

Although "A Week in December" is a novel -- at times, a comedy -- of contemporary manners, Faulks' preoccupation is the inner vacuum that those manners and frenetic activities conceal -- a lack of human connection, the contemporary urge to supplant the real with the virtual. When not plotting to acquire his next billion pounds through the ruin of other people, Veals cruises Internet porn while his wife pursues a life of her own. Their son, Finn, is left to lose himself in a pseudo-reality television game show and to smoke "skunk," the powerfully hybridized marijuana that ultimately pushes him to a psychotic break.

Veals is, in some sense, the embodiment of the emptiness that Faulks places at the center of the story. It somehow doesn't seem appropriate to brand him a materialist, since the essence of his acquisitiveness involves dealing in derivative securities so attenuated from the activities of the real economy that they constitute a "virtual" commodity. "I have mastered this world," he thinks to himself on the eve of his latest plot's consummation. "To me there is no mystery, no nuance and no complication; I am a man alive to the spirit of his time, the one who hears the whispers on the wind."

At the other pole of willful disconnection stands young Hassan al-Rashid who has lost himself in the counterfeit canon of fundamentalism. It gives only a little of the plot away, however, that his end is less nihilistic than Veals'. One need only wonder what might happen to a coddled son of wealthy parents who forgets to eat and suffers an attack of hypoglycemia while on his way to martyrdom.

In Faulks' deftly drawn contemporary London, he could lose paradise -- and still get the girl.

timothy.rutten @latimes.com