Forty years after the introduction of oral contraception, choice has taken on a whole new meaning: there are artificial inseminations and in vitro fertilisations, celebrity adoptions and sexagenarian pregnancies, surrogates and egg donors and the glimmering prospect of clones. While internet message boards fairly groan with censorious views on how, when and if these procedures should be used, the idea of a woman choosing not to have children at all still verges on the unthinkable - but here the first-time novelist Lucy Beresford bravely plunges into the melee.
Amber, a 35-year-old London headhunter, lives with her strapping husband in a well-appointed house. Instead of falling victim to the usual biological twinges, she finds herself on the brink of mental collapse because she cannot come to terms with her inability to want children.
Burned by the hot and cold attentions of her parents, she insists that her friends are her family. They include her psychiatrist husband, Matt; a Sondheim-singing gay vicar named Dylan (Amber refers to his boyfriend as "Camp David"); and Nicole, a fast-talking, Delhi-born beauty. They live in a world where headhunters take extended lunch and coffee breaks to discuss the demerits of pregnancy, where vandalism and infidelity are largely consequence-free, where the parents of small children find the time to star in church musicals, and where joblessness means some time to sort out "personal issues", rather than a frantic scramble for a new position.
Most are defined, in Amber's mind at least, by their attitudes towards procreation: frumpy Jenny and her moustachioed partner Clive remain childless; delicate Louisa was impregnated and abandoned; chaotic Serena and Harry breed with cheery abandon. Everybody weighs in on the subject of motherhood. Nicole shuns her family's traditions, scornfully rejecting the notion that "women who don't want a baby are, by definition, empty specimens". Louisa's mother, Prue, maintains that "a woman isn't complete until she's had a baby". Matt thinks "it's a pity more people don't consider the effect kids will have on a relationship before they conceive".
While Amber stridently insists that "not enough women today believe they have permission not to have" children, she sits uneasily on a bubbling pot of barely contained neuroses. She follows recipes to the salt grain, organises her godchildren in a spreadsheet, "plans her spontaneity" and, when distressed, pulls compulsively at the hair along her parting. She whispers, she shrieks, her insides "churn" and "curdle". To Beresford's credit, she also manages to be charming - witty and vulnerable.
In the end, it all comes back to the mother: Amber's problems, and her decision to remain childless, are entwined with her troubled family history. The idea that some women do not want children - even after they've had them - causes relief when applied to herself and her friends, but intolerable anguish when attached to her own mum. Selfish and sarcastic, with a cackle like "Snow White's witch", this mother inhabits cartoonish dimensions. Like her daughter, she long ago erected emotional walls to contain the pain, but time and trauma made hers more like an Iron Maiden, with spikes outside as well as in.
She hides to avoid her daughter's visits, rejects her gifts and announces that she "always wanted grandchildren". Her behaviour is not a new development: her daughter remembers a teary altercation at the beach about 30 years earlier, when she watched ants crawl over the ice-cream-covered leg of a toddler-aged Amber with something akin to satisfaction because "it serve[d her] right". No doubt inspired by her professional experiences as a psychodynamic psychotherapist, Beresford skilfully shows the subjectivity of this portrayal: only by recognising her mother's humanity can Amber begin to come to terms with her own.
The problem is that it all feels a little conflicted - as if two or three separate novels were fighting to get out. There is a light-hearted fantasy about clever, affluent, attractive Londoners; a feminist discourse about what exactly women should do with that "room of their own" once they have it; and a sensitive account of depression and family dysfunction, a sort of therapy memoir with the author as therapist. It is entirely characteristic of this mix of seriousness and Sex and the City that Amber's nuanced evolution from insecure childishness to sensitive nurturer can be traced through her hairdos: an ever-changing rainbow of dye jobs crescendoes to a blunt, bleached Rosemary's Baby-style cut at the height of turmoil; a return to her natural colour heralds the arrival of inner peace.
Beresford's prose is, by turns, solemn and satirical, vacuous and polemical. Her marvellously funny observations ("We had a row, or rather I chucked a few toys out of my pram while Matt checked the contents of his golf bag") counter the more saccharine moments ("it was as though Hope took it upon herself to shed her own name, sliding into a black hole of hopelessness"), but the combination never quite coalesces.