BOOK REVIEW : Real Lover Competes With Fictional Rival

Rubin reviews books for The Times and for the Christian Science Monitor. T Second Fiddle by Mary Wesley (Viking: $18.95; 184 pages).

"How agreeable the delights and intrigues of love affairs were," reminisces novelist Mary Wesley in a London Sunday Times interview, where she goes on to express sympathy for today's youth, barred by the grim threat of AIDS from pursuing the kind of escapades she says her own generation enjoyed in wartime London.

Having published her first novel when she was 71, Wesley has continued to produce at the rate of one book a year. "Second Fiddle" is her sixth novel. Wherever she may ultimately rank as a writer, Wesley herself is clearly a true English character who seems to have stepped right off the pages of a Nancy Mitford novel. If Mitford's perennial flapper, the oft-wedded "Bloter," had been able to write fiction, it might well have resembled Wesley's (although Wesley has been married only twice!).

A more distant ancestress is Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Like the Wife, Wesley does not mince words. But Wesley's tales of sexual intrigue are related in an accent that is clipped and brittle rather than broad and hearty. The Wife winks and digs us in the ribs; Wesley prefers to shock us with her calm acceptance of the outrageous. The title of her first novel provided a sample of her brand of humor: "Jumping the Queue" refers to suicide, seen as a way of pushing ahead instead of waiting one's turn at death. Her fifth novel, "Not That Sort of Girl," exemplified her favorite sort of subject matter: a proper, middle-class married lady who has led a double life.

Trying to account for the deja lu I felt upon reading her work, I kept wondering who it was she reminded me of. As I summoned up possible candidates, none was quite as close a fit as I'd first suspected, leading me to the tentative conclusion that Mary Wesley has imbibed elements from a cluster of British comic styles and distilled them into a tone that is unique without being all that distinctive. Indeed, her fiction is so squarely in the mode of British social comedy as to unleash a flood of mildly misleading comparisons: Muriel Spark, A. N. Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and (perhaps the closest) Molly Keane, who also gained fame in her 70s, although she started writing much earlier.

Thus far, Wesley has not ventured as far emotionally as Wilson or Keane have done, nor is she as intellectually venturesome as Spark or Amis. Following in the time-honored tradition of a light, insouciant approach to dark, sometimes shocking subject matter, she seems to be so comfortable writing in this manner that the reader often feels the story is progressing on automatic pilot.

"Second Fiddle" begins promisingly enough. Claud Bannister, a young man trying to write his first novel, is attracted to--and taken up by--Laura Thornby, a dashing, eccentric, sophisticated woman of 45. Laura proceeds to set his career--and life--in motion. She finds him a convenient garret, introduces him to purportedly interesting people (including herself) to serve as models for characters, and helpfully suggests that he open a market stall selling secondhand items to support his writing habit. Laura's weird mother and still weirder Uncle Nicholas (they are sister and brother) refer to young Claud as her "toy boy."

Somewhat to Laura's surprise, the dilettantish Claud starts to look as if he's going to be a writer of real talent, and Laura, who's never allowed herself to become emotionally involved in any of her sexual relationships, finds she resents playing "second fiddle" to the fictional heroine (based partly on her) that Claud is inventing and falling in love with.

Competing with a fictional rival is perhaps the least of Laura's worries. Nicholas, we learn, is not merely her uncle, but also her father. Laura seems relatively well adjusted to this, although being the product of an incestuous union has understandably predisposed her in favor of brief affairs rather than serious involvements leading to marriage and progeny.

There's a further twist in store. Laura can't quite recall the identity of a man who took advantage of her drunken state at a party nearly 20 years ago. Against my usual reviewer's credo of not giving away plot secrets, let me reveal that it was none other than her uncle/father Nicholas. And now, my reason for doing so: The disclosure, when it occurs, does not have very much impact on the plot, nor does Laura herself seem unduly affected by it. "Surely it is better to be facetious than to accuse?" she speculates. Whether facetiousness or accusation is the preferable response in Laura's situation, it's certainly clear that a high tolerance for the facetious is an absolute precondition for the reader hoping to derive enjoyment from this novel.

Triple incest is but one of several anticlimaxes in this story, where much seems to happen, but none of it seems to matter. We never feel, for instance, that Laura is in real danger of becoming deeply attached to Claud, however often we're told she is. Claud's feeling for Laura seems to have even less depth than hers for him. And Claud and Laura are undoubtedly the most interesting characters in a book filled with extremely sketchy, but all too ubiquitous minor figures (some of them drawn from Wesley's previous novels). They take up space but have little substance, and the coyness of their cameos only pushes the level of jokiness to a point where few are likely to find it tolerable

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