March 03, 2008

Whatever Love Means, by David Baddiel

Vic is a nearly-famous rock guitarist thinking about shacking up in south London with his foul-mouthed thirty-something girlfriend Tess; Vic's best friend Joe is a geeky, AIDS-researching biochemist who shares a son and a flash yuppie pad with the beautiful and slightly Irish Emma. On the day of Princess Diana's death Vic falls into bed with Em; a few months later Joe sort of does the same with Tess. If that were all there was to this book, it would hardly be worth bothering with: just another Hampstead (or rather, Herne Hill) adultery novel. What raises it up a considerable notch, quite apart from Baddiel's obvious gift for very good jokes, is his less expected gift for deadpan but dryly insightful prose, and his even more unexpected talent for fleshing out character. Every player in this touching, tragic tale: female as well as male, minor as much as major, villainous alongside virtuous, is eminently believable, and harrowingly feasible. Not quite so convincing is the Princess-Diana-death subplot that forms a background to the early chapters. Like the hysteria over the Queen of Hearts itself, the whole thing rather peters out, and provides little more than an excuse for the book's well-chosen title (it's a famous Prince Chuck quote apropos his then fiancé Diana). Taken as a whole, small misgiving aside, this is a fine and impressive novel: funny, sad, warm, dark, tender, wise and bleakly memorable.

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