A Valentine letter bomb

Cupid was shooting poison darts when he spied the characters in "Love, etc." This romantic bloodbath is the latest wicked novel from Julian Barnes, England's sharpest satirist.

Tell them about Gillian.

Do you mind? I'm trying to review a book here. (Ahem.)

Looking more like a script than a novel, this comic tragedy unfolds entirely in dialogue, as a series of soliloquies and private confessions on the oldest subject in the world. Conveniently, all the parts are labeled, so it's clear from the start who's speaking

Ten years have passed since we met Gillian, Stuart, and Oliver in "Talking It Over" (Vintage). In that novel, Gillian switched her affections from Stuart to his best friend, Oliver, with devastating effect.

No hard feelings. All blood under the bridge.

Since then, Gillian has been more or less happily married to Oliver and raising their two little girls. She's a successful restorer of old paintings, and he's an unsuccessful film writer, whose pyrotechnic language flickers between wit and lunacy.

If Gillian is so good at spotting fakes, what's she doing with Oliver?

The novel opens when Stuart makes a surprise reappearance in London. He's returned from a decade in America, divorced again and rich from his organic-food business. Now, he just wants to pop in and catch up with his old friends.

Oliver stole her off me. He wanted my life so he took it. He made Gill fall in love with him.

The most enjoyable aspect of this initially entertaining and ultimately disturbing novel is the interplay of their various voices - dialogues so carefully pitched that you'll swear you heard "Love, etc." instead of read it.

I was dozing, I confess. Et tu? O narcoleptic and steatopygous Stuart, he of the crepuscular understanding and the Weltanschauung built of Lego. Look, can we please take the longer view?

On the framework of a French sex farce, Barnes conducts a brutally frank examination of these three flawed characters. Placed in the role of confessor, we're drawn into their desires and terrors, their petty attempts at one-upmanship, and their semi-transparent self-justification. This is a rotating love triangle with razor-sharp points.

What you have to understand is that Stuart wants you to like him, needs you to like him, whereas Oliver has a certain difficulty imagining that you won't.

Much has changed in the intervening decade since Gillian jilted her lover and married his best friend, but more striking is what hasn't. Barnes is at his best when he illustrates what an uncomfortably tight fit old friendship can become. After all, ill-matched spouses are allowed to divorce, but no such clean break exists for dysfunctional friends.

Oliver and Stuart pick up just where they left off, jousting like young rivals. But Stuart is not the insecure dullard he once was, and Oliver's rapier wit, once so flashy and intimidating, now seems irrelevant in the grownup world of equity and fatherhood.

Oliver is planning to compress middle-age into a single afternoon of lying down with a migraine.

When Stuart offers Gillian and Oliver his old apartment in a nice section of town, Oliver immediately accepts and even takes a job delivering produce for Stuart's business. Gillian anticipates the awkwardness of this entanglement with her exhusband, but Oliver feels so superior that he fails to see the tables turning.

Real betrayal occurs among friends, among those you love.

As Oliver falls under a grinding bout of depression, Gillian begins to consider whether Boring & Reliable might not be better than Acerbic & Clever.

Despite the armor of his dazzling wit, Oliver turns that sarcastic sword on himself, stabbing his most tender victim. In a typical Barnes move, the comedy drains away before we can escape, and we're forced to follow the painful ramifications of this situation, particularly as it affects Gillian's precocious daughter.

Oh, don't look at me like that.

The chaos of desire drives these characters in ways they can't control or even acknowledge. This is irresistible gossip, from a writer of piercing wit and unsettling insight. We can't help listening to these people, hoping they'll finally see themselves clearly - hoping just as naively that we won't see ourselves in them.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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