Elizabeth Buchan, Author . Viking $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-670-03280-8

When Fanny, 23, first lays eyes on Will, 28, he is making a speech in his bid for a seat in Parliament. They fall in love instantly, and this latest novel by Buchan (Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman ,etc.) records the parallel 19-year trajectories of their marriage and Will's political career, the private and the public. Buchan crafts beautiful sentences, which she stacks in airy, digestible paragraphs; yet the novel fails to convey the excitement of the events in Fanny's consciousness that constitute the real plot. She wrestles from first to last page in service of a single question: what exactly does it mean to be good? Fanny wishes to be not just the titular good wife but also a good mother to 18-year-old Chloe; a good daughter to her fiery wine-merchant Italian refugee father, Alfredo; and a good sister-in-law to the alcoholic Meg, who seems to lurk in every doorway. Fanny must also please her husband's political party leaders by appearing in skirts of the correct length and avoiding all substantive talk at state dinners, and she feels duty-bound to reach out to the mother, Sally, who abandoned her at age three to run off to America. Yet these relationships, which constitute the substance of the novel, have scant weight. Even when Fanny makes an impulsive trip to Italy, the story fails to ignite. Buchan's fans will still find much to admire in this thoughtful, intelligent effort, but will hope the author's next springs more vividly to life. (Jan.)

Forecast: Viking is attempting to build on the success of Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by bringing Buchan to the U.S. for a 12-city author tour. Enthusiasm for this novel may be more muted, but Buchan's name recognition should continue to grow.

Reviewed on: 01/12/2004
Release date: 12/01/2003
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