Novel of the week

Man-Made Fibre

Francine Stock <em>Chatto & Windus, 250pp, £12</em>

ISBN 0701173424

The time is the early 1960s, the setting the comfortable English suburbs. Alan and Patsy Hopkins are the envy of their neighbours. Their house is immaculately decorated - all oranges, greens and beige. Its living-room-cum-dining-room-cum-study has a stylish Scandinavian flavour, and its kitchen is like a "spaceship", equipped with the latest gadgets.

Alan is an ambitious scientist, working on developing a new man-made fibre. Patsy is attractive, intelligent and bored. "She could have gone to university, if there had been any point," Alan observes. Immaculately turned out (like "spun sugar"), Patsy devotes herself to her three children and the house. Theirs is a perfect modern marriage. "Her lists and organisation, her strategic planning, her vision of their home and future, his execution of those shared goals in the outside world - that was the contract."

It is also, as anyone who has read The Second Sex will know, a textbook example of the bourgeois marriage, in which the man goes out to conquer the world and the woman stays at home, ferreting out fluff from under the wardrobes.

From an early 21st-century perspective, therefore, there is a heavy irony in Stock's introduction of these characters. Patsy may think she is content, but the reader knows that all she has is what Simone de Beauvoir memorably called "gilded mediocrity".

Something must give. An older neighbour, Evie, whom Stock uses as a clunky device to commentate retrospectively on the Hopkinses' doomed marriage, spells it out: "They both believed in the modern. They could remember the war, they'd seen what their parents had to cope with. They were going to build something better. Ah well."

The catalyst for disaster is a month-long working trip that takes Alan to America, leaving the family behind. Disoriented and bereft, Patsy begins to feel frustrations that she has repressed for years - or rather, directed into obsessive interior decoration.

Inevitably, she has an affair. There is, for a few weeks, a novel and passionate intensity to her emotional life. The scenes switch between her new life in England, and Alan in America, where he is coming face to face with the harsh realities of the business world.

These few critical weeks are the centre of the book, and make quite compelling reading. Stock's writing is vividly impressionistic, with strikingly appropriate images: when Patsy embarks on her affair, it is as though "the world is turned upside down . . . plunged into the vortex of the twin tub". But as soon as it's over, and Patsy reluctantly follows Alan to America with the children, she fades from view, becoming little more than a cipher.

The rest of their life in the 20th century is portrayed in no more than sketchy detail. Patsy predictably discovers feminism and "throws off the shackles of domesticity" (Stock is never afraid of cliche). Alan becomes increasingly successful in business in the States. When he and Patsy eventually divorce, he remarries, to a psychotherapist.

While it is depressing to witness the death throes of two perfectly decent and well-intentioned people, Stock puts enlivening wit and colour into her portrait of the Sixties. And Alan and Patsy have just enough individuality to command our sympathy.

Man-Made Fibre is a fable of sorts, the arc of its narrative far simpler than that of Stock's first novel, A Foreign Country, a somewhat overplotted story about moral responsibility which drew on her experiences as a television journalist. This novel has a lighter touch. But, in the end, one wonders what the point is of venturing on to such well-trodden ground.

12 issues for £12