cover image A Desirable Residence

A Desirable Residence

Madeleine Wickham. St. Martin's Press, $21.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-312-15108-9

In her second comedy of manners, following her witty and charming The Tennis Party, Wickam chronicles the experiences of three families at various junctures of middle age whose lives intersect, initially, in suburban London. Liz and Jonathan Chambers have just taken a major financial step in buying Silchester Tutorial College when Liz returns to her family's recently vacated London house to meet with Marcus Witherstone, her real estate agent, who has arranged a viewing for a prospective renter, Ginny Prentice. ""Sometimes I wonder why we didn't just stay put, with our nice little comfortable lives. But, you know, life's about more than just being comfortable,"" Liz muses that afternoon, defining the story's chief concern: the fear that life will hold no further delights and surprises. The characters' identity crises lead them into various ventures, illicit affairs and illegal business deals in their attempts to fight the clock and the prospect of commonplace existence. The succession of attachments and separations between these families are entertainingly related, for Wickham has a clever eye that renders her characters' emotions and fears universal rather than stereotypical. Especially well wrought are the relationships on the periphery: the tension and compassion between Jonathan Chambers and his sulky teenaged daughter; the curious menage of Ginny and Piers Prentice and their friend, Duncan. The narrative is a lighthearted romp through other people's lives, with a ring of truth that adds a bittersweet edge. (Mar.)