It is the summer of 1970 and university student Keith Nearing, adopted, vertically challenged and guilty about the way he has treated previous women in his life, including his disturbed younger sister Violet, is grappling with the rise of the English woman’s novel (Austen, et al) and the emancipation of the female, post-Sixties. He hopes, during a sultry summer in an Italian castle, to turn the latter to his advantage.

The sticky, slow-moving Italian sojourn is courtesy of his on-off girlfriend Lily’s second-best friend Scheherazade, a pneumatic blonde whom he fancies more than Lily. In fact, he is distracted by vague feelings of lust for most of the disparate characters that trip through that summer, which is unfortunate because it belittles his genuine affection for Lily, who is by far the nicest person in the cast. Their dialogue and friendship is a joy, so much so, that one wants to shout at Keith: ‘You’ve got a perfectly good girlfriend, for goodness’ sake!’

Keith is perpetually being humiliated, but on his 21st birthday, he endures a particularly bruising episode of the bedroom variety at the hands of a frightening, ambiguous woman called Gloria Beautyman, with whom Keith develops a long obsession.

We know this is coming, because all the publicity material says so, because of Gloria’s ambiguous name, and because the flash-forwards to Keith’s thrice-married life as a neurotic writer indicate it. Unfortunately, it takes a tortuous number of pages before the great denouement.

There has been speculation as to Gloria’s identity – the book is said to be autobiographical – but, girls, don’t rush to claim the inspiration. She is pretty unappealing, as are most of the other characters in this tawdry tale.

In the last fifth of the book, back in England, the narrative suddenly picks up pace, the flavour of the 1970s comes through, and then I genuinely wanted to know what happened to Keith and his family. But it’s a wearying, messy journey. The writing, as a stand-alone, is brilliant; every sentence a jewel, like dipping into a set of elegantly written essays created to demonstrate what creative writing is at its best, but the tale is tediously told.

A lot has been written about this long-awaited novel, which is tipped as a Booker Prize winner. It may be the most hotly debated novel of 2010, for people seem either to gain terrific resonance from it or deem it a self-indulgent, undisciplined ramble. The answer is not to believe any of the reviews, but to read it yourself. It won’t be wasted time.

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