The ever-brilliant Barnes concocts a mordant sexual comedy for his latest novel, taking over the later lives of three characters he introduced in the earlier Talking It Over. Straight, rather stuffy organic-food kingpin Stuart; his former best friend, the ebulliently witty layabout Oliver; and Gillian, whom Oliver stole from Stuart, address the reader in turns about just what happened (or in Oliver's case, show off for the reader in a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics that would bring down the house if this were a play). There's no doubt that in most ways Stuart deserves Gillian more than Oliver does, and the latter's attraction for her seems odd. On the other hand, Oliver is, unexpectedly, quite a good father, and there are hints of obtuseness and brutality about Stuart's bluff self-satisfaction. Poor Gillian, whose French-born mother also comments on the proceedings from a cynical distance, seems quite unable to decide between the two men when Stuart forcibly reenters her life. Out of their often self-serving, sometimes touchingly self-aware accounts of a handful of encounters emerges a funny, occasionally poignant look at the strange confusion between friendship and love--as well as more than a hint that nobody truly knows just who they really are and what they are capable of. It's slight but telling and, except for Oliver's wonderful and witty set pieces, oddly subdued for Barnes, but it would make an excellent play, in the Tom Stoppard vein. (Feb. 13) Forecast: Although Barnes's succession of clever novels have won him a following here, the strongly English domesticity portrayed in Love, Etc. seems unlikely to gather him many new adherents. For connoisseurs of brilliant invective, however, it's a treat, and Knopf is anticipating that interest with a 40,000 first printing.