Which comes first: the title of a Tony Parsons novel, or the insistent tug of a story that must be told? Difficult not to wonder. First, he gave us Man and Boy, a book about men and their sons. It sold more than two million copies. Then came One For My Baby, a novel about men and love, and Man and Wife, a novel about, erm, men and their wives. Finally, here is The Family Way, which is about babies and just how hard they are to come by these days, what with us girls being so stubborn and independent and ignoring our ovaries until - oh no! - we discover our eggs are long since past their sell-by date. Now that he's "done" the whole gamut of familial relationships, one shudders to think what "issue" Parsons will tackle next. Perhaps a novel about the fad for four-wheel-drives. He could call it Man and Motor.
The Family Way is built around three sisters - Megan, Jessica and Cat - although it is really their reproductive organs that take centre stage. The Lord alone knows how many days the author spent with his nose stuck between the pages of Birth and Beyond, because every possible problem is here: infertility, IVF, pre-eclampsia. (Only Cat has a textbook delivery but, to make up for this, her man has to have his vasectomy reversed before he can inseminate her.) The result is a narrative that moves with all the expository clunkiness of a script for Casualty. In one scene, Jessica tells her sisters she is suffering from endometriosis. "That's to do with your period, right?" asks Cat. At which point - for anyone without a medical dictionary to hand - Dr Megan steps in. "It's a menstrual condition," she says. "Fragments of membrane similar to the lining of the uterus are where they shouldn't be."
Parsons's thesis seems to be that, in the end, all women want babies, and any female who says otherwise is a liar. Both Megan and Cat are self-consciously tough career girls, the kind of creatures who can imagine no greater horror than the arrival of a "screaming little shit machine" and a flat strewn with coloured plastic. Yet when push comes to shove (down at the abortion clinic; as a 40th birthday approaches), they come over all mushy at the thought that a fresh life might stir inside them. The only two female characters in the novel who admit to disliking babies - the sisters' starlet mother, Olivia, who abandoned them as children, and Cat's boss, who owns a restaurant - are rendered so horribly unsympathetic, they might have strolled straight out of the dark heart of a Grimm's fairy tale. Selfish, bitter, hollowed-out; this is what you become if your biology is not quite right.
Naturally, I hated all this - so reductive, so feebly misogynistic. Yet the women are by no means the worst thing about this novel. The men, driven half-mad by women's hateful doublespeak, are either drips or pigs; the poor, at least where Megan lives in Hackney, are all yobs, slags and slatterns. The good, like Jessica, who adopts a Chinese orphan, are rewarded with renewed fertility and babies of their own; the bad, like Michael, who screws his receptionist behind his wife's back, or Olivia, who thinks her newly born granddaughter an "ugly little bastard", are rewarded with, respectively, lonely abandonment and multiple sclerosis. Most terrible of all are Parsons's similes, which have a clumsy swagger all of their own. Desperate to conceive, Paulo and Jessica "grimly banged away like minor offenders doing community service". During a premature birth, "it seemed that things moved alarmingly fast. Like those movies you see about death row - the sudden mad rush to get the act done and behind them."
In a press release that came with my copy of the book, Parsons, ever the church mouse, is quoted as saying that The Family Way deals with one of the "great modern subjects". I suspect what he means is that a book about the making of babies, or not, is one which he believes lots of people (two million?) will clamour to read. I'm not sure he is right. When Sylvia Ann Hewlett's fertility-obsessed polemic Baby Hunger came out two years ago, it was hardly the bestseller her publisher expected. The Family Way covers the same invidious territory. The peculiar triumph of Parsons over Hewlett, however, is that although his form is the novel, his book is by far the more glib of the two. "Their bodies were in extra time, their eggs were still hopeful of a penalty shoot-out," he writes. No man of my acquaintance wants to read this kind of stuff, let alone any woman.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer