A novel of fairy-tale irony, comedy, pathos, and near-tragedy

Love Unknown, by A.N. Wilson. New York: Viking. 202 pp. $16.95. The painting on the dust jacket - ``The Pursuit,'' by Fragonard - provides an intimation of the style and tone of A.N. Wilson's novel, his ninth in 10 years. Amid trees and flowers, a group of delicately rendered, disheveled, aristocratically attired figures chase - or perhaps float - at one another, oddly serene despite their air of agitated animation. Their serenity is in part in the eye of the beholder, who sees in their disarray a charmingly composed set piece.

Even without the picture, we know from the mock-sententious, fairy-tale irony of the opening page (which begins ``Once upon a time'') that the characters so introduced will be rendered smaller, lighter - and in some sense more precious - by the distance interposed between their understanding of themselves and the author's understanding of them. The narrative voice might well be Puck's remarking, ``Lord what fools these mortals be.''

As in a fairy tale, there are three young women. Or rather, once there were, for by the time the action takes place, the three are no longer very young. But they met when young, sharing a flat in North London: glamorous Belinda, now Lady Mason, who's been leading a life of empty fashion; tasteful, literary Monica, who has taken up an increasingly solitary abode in Paris; and pretty, girlish Richeldis, the only one of the trio to have realized the dream of marrying Prince Charming and living happily ever after.

When Monica and Belinda run into Richeldis's ``perfect'' husband, Simon, on a weekend jaunt to Paris with his secretary, their long-held belief in Richeldis's perfect marriage is shattered. Monica, who has been living on her own in seeming celibacy with no need to work, thanks to a legacy from a distinguished old professor, has been in love with Simon all these years, but never ventured to intrude upon her friend's perfect marriage. Gently but firmly confronted with his wrongdoing, Simon admits to Monica that he is not really happy. He has had a series of ``meaningless'' affairs, only to discover that extramarital sex is not the answer to domestic boredom.

Monica's initial indignation on Richeldis's behalf is quickly supplanted by a careful neutrality. When Simon vaguely - and disingenuously - mumbles that he supposes his wife has love affairs too, Monica, instead of defending her friend, merely observes, ``...it's hard to understand the way married people behave. It's none of my business.'' In such nuances of manner, moral choices are made.

Not that Monica and Simon are lacking in moral concern, nor that their romantic feelings are unjustified or discreditable. Monica is too high-minded to indulge in a casual fling. She and Simon agonize over the suffering their actions may unleash. But in pursuit of true love (which Simon convinces himself he has never experienced until now), they finally allow themselves to embark on a serious affair (Simon dramatically compares their emotions to ``the love that moves the sun and other stars'' - Dante's divine love), and they plan in due course to reveal all to Richeldis and live happily ever after, this time truly.

But the best-laid plans do go awry, particularly when flawed to begin with. The revealing turns of the main action are counterpointed by an ingeniously interlocking set of subplots involving Richeldis's mother, Madge (a once formidable woman suffering from strange delusions) and Simon's saintly, foolish brother Bartle (an unfrocked Anglican priest in love with his pretty, Jewish dental hygienist).

The nimbleness with which the characters oscillate between reason and rationalization, passion and histrionics, self-knowledge and self-delusion, is the key to the high comedy, pathos, and near-tragedy of their situations. Wilson takes us inside their hearts and minds while also letting us see them for what they are. Shifts in perspective from inside to outside, sympathy to judgment, can be unsettling - indeed, should be unsettling. Wilson undercuts his characters with satire, but, in the time-honored tradition of moralists from Aesop to La Fontaine and Edmund Spenser (who does it with such delicacy in his poem ``Muiopotmos, or the Fate of the Butterflie''), he manages to miniaturize without trivializing. In precisely this vein, Wilson presents Monica and Simon on the verge of their affair:

``They had reached the Pont Saint-Michel and she was trying to look away from him as she spoke. But her speech had awoken tears in him, tears from the very depths of his heart, and they stood on the bridge crying like children in the cold autumn air.''

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer who writes frequently for the Monitor.

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