cover image Scandalous Risks

Scandalous Risks

Susan Howatch. Alfred A. Knopf, $21.95 (385pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58886-5

A commanding novel of substance and heart, Howatch's fourth in her Church of England series (following Ultimate Prizes ), is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young woman of intellect and means but no direction, and centers around her strange affair in 1963 with 61-year-old Neville Aysgarth, dean of Starbridge Cathedral. Related mainly through their letters and conversations, the progress--and explosive dissolution--of their relationship is set in the context of a real-life theological controversy in England crystallized by the publication of Honest to God , a bestselling, situational-ethics view of God's relevance to modern man. Neville and Venetia's mutual needs and fantasies are masterfully revealed by Howatch, who treats romance, sex, love and religion with the seriousness and humor of the best 19th-century novelists. Perfectly limned lesser characters, familiar from the earlier books, include Neville's superior, Bishop Charles Ashworth, and his wise enigmatic wife, Lyle; Canon Eddie Hoffenbach, who adores Venetia; the mystical, sensible Father Jon Darrow and his son Nicholas; Venetia's bumbling wonderful father and Neville's best friend, Lord Flaxton. An affirmation of the printed word, this thumping great, richly nuanced novel of ideas, morality and deep compassion offers itself as a counter to Venetia's observation that ``faith had been wrecked, trust destroyed, love annihilated.'' BOMC alternate. (Nov.)