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Pop Lit

What friends are for

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2009

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One of these three novels is a thoughtful story about the mysteries of friendship and marriage. Another is a sophisticated, minutely observed comedy of manners that illuminates the decline of Britain’s upper classes. The third is a lively, sexy send-up of life among the frustrated young mothers of an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood.

“After You’’ is good women’s fiction, warm but not gooey, with just enough edge to keep things interesting. When narrator Ellie Lerner’s lifelong best friend, London-based journalist Lucy Stafford, is murdered, Ellie rushes to London and stays on after the funeral to care for Sophie, her friend’s 8-year-old daughter. Sophie watched as her mother was stabbed to death by a drug addict intent on stealing her diamond ring. The little girl hasn’t spoken since. Greg, Sophie’s father, has made himself scarce, taking refuge in work at his law firm, then numbing himself with alcohol to get through the night. Ellie puts her life in Boston on hold to stay in their Notting Hill home and try to help Sophie. “This is about me wanting to, needing to, be here for Sophie,’’ she tells Philip, her husband, who doesn’t understand and wants her to come home.

Ellie has been drifting emotionally for years, grieving over her stillborn son, going through the motions of marriage and a job teaching entrepreneurship at a university business school. As she tries to help Sophie emerge from her cocoon of mourning, Ellie is forced to confront her own traumatic loss and deal with her unraveling marriage. Sophie is an avid reader, so Ellie decides to try to reach her with her own favorite childhood book, “The Secret Garden’’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a classic story of loss and redemption. It’s a nice touch. Many readers will enjoy revisiting Burnett’s magical novel. Gradually, Sophie begins to heal. Meanwhile, Ellie learns that her adored best friend Lucy had a secret life, one that makes Ellie question her character and the quality of their friendship.

In “Past Imperfect,’’ a dying tycoon asks a former friend to find the child he believes he fathered 40 years before when they were making the rounds of London’s debutante parties during the so-called “Swinging Sixties.’’ This search is the device that Julian Fellowes uses to air his views of the British upper classes and how their circumstances have declined and habits have changed over the past four decades or so. The result is an acerbic, detailed, witty, sometimes poignant, and always entertaining social comedy. Fellowes is probably best known to Americans as the author of the screenplay for “Gosford Park,’’ for which he won an Academy Award. This is his second novel. The first, “Snobs,’’ worked the same literary gold mine, the British class system, apparently an irresistible subject for Anglophiles.

The nameless narrator, once a callow young aristocrat, is approaching 60. He has confounded everyone’s low expectations and become a moderately successful novelist. His onetime friend Damian Baxter, from whom he has been bitterly estranged for decades, is a self-made multimillionaire who is dying of cancer. Some years earlier, Damian received an anonymous letter that led him to believe that he fathered a child with a former girlfriend. When they were students at Cambridge, the narrator introduced the charming, handsome, ambitious but middle-class Damian to the upper crust world of debutante balls and country house parties. Damian was a success with the debs, if not with their parents, who were always on the lookout for a “good match’’ for their daughters. The narrator is surprised when Damian hands him a list of five names - among them the daughter of an earl, a Moravian princess, a celebrated beauty - and asks him to track them down and find out which of them has a child who might be his. The search gives Fellowes ample scope to portray changes in British society from the 1960s to the present.

In her sprawling satirical novel “Prospect Park West,’’ Amy Sohn takes an irreverent look at life in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, a gentrified neighborhood of affluent progressives, militant vegetarians, bohemian conformists, striving young professionals, and various other urban stereotypes. Sohn used to write a Carrie Bradshaw-type column for New York Magazine. In her third novel she brings all that experience to bear on Park Slope in a story about four unhappy young mothers, or “breeders,’’ one of several words that may be unfamiliar to some readers. There’s “hasbian,’’ for former lesbian, “SAHN’’ for stay-at-home-mom, and some other terms that can’t be explicated here.

“Prospect Park West’’ is fast, funny, and trashy. Sohn plunges right in: “Rebecca Rose felt about Park Slope the same way she felt about her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Abbie: basic unconditional love mixed with frequent spurts of uncontrollable rage.’’ Rebecca is a writer whose architect husband has lost interest in sex since Abbie’s birth. Karen is obsessed with her own fertility and real estate, not necessarily in that order. Lizzie, the hasbian, married to an African-American musician, finds herself attracted to Rebecca, who is obsessed with Stuart, a celebrity actor/director married to Melora, an actress with a drug and alcohol problem. Sohn weaves their stories together to create what could be described as the perfect beach book, if summer wasn’t at an end. Save it for vacation. Or wait for the TV version. Sarah Jessica Parker reportedly has optioned the book for a series.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

AFTER YOU
By Julie Buxbaum
Dial, 352 pp., $25

PAST IMPERFECT
By Julian Fellowes
St. Martin’s, 416 pp., $24.99

PROSPECT PARK WEST
By Amy Sohn
Simon & Schuster, 379 pp., $25

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