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MAN VS. WOMAN, THE BRITISH WAY

THE ESSENCE OF THE THING
By Madeleine St. John
Carroll and Graf
234 pages, $22

To put it succinctly, "The Essence of the Thing" is a good novel. Its plot is man against woman: he who doesn't want his soul disturbed by intrusive feminine questions resists she who wishes to know the beloved. "I just don't like women going on and on" is the male attitude. Most of the action takes place -- it's a long running spat in a London flat -- between a character named Jonathan, a live-in rat, and Nicola, a schlep who, when things go wrong, figures it must be her fault.

Nicola is by far the more sympathetic character. She writes copy for a living, doesn't make enough money to purchase her apartment outright and ends up entering into an arrangement with lawyer Jonathan, who moves in and helps with the rent. What a guy! As Nicola returns one night after going out for a pack of cigarettes, Jonathan tells her that he doesn't love her any more. This off-the-cuff announcement seems a bit late to me. After all, they've been living together for a number of years. But what's worse is that Jonathan tells Nicola to move out -- and she does.

This modern love story touches on the age-old question of why men and women fall out of love. Jonathan thinks that to be alone is to be free. Nicola is distraught, but moves in with friends and builds a social structure to dissipate her grieving and misery. But Jonathan is a jerk and suffers by himself.

All this is reminiscent of real life. There's much talk of God; mostly about His absence and what an unwarranted mystery He is. There's a great ending that I won't divulge.

The novel's title derives from a quote mid-way into the book that concerns marmalade. Jonathan's mother, who doesn't approve of live-in arrangements, gives Jonathan a jar of marmalade -- similar to what she used to send him when he was away at school -- as a gift for Nicola. Jonathan leaves the marmalade in his cupboard after Nicola has departed, forgetting to pass on the gift. He is tempted to eat the marmalade as he sits alone in the apartment one morning, but chooses, in a pang of guilt, to eat gooseberry jam instead. "Too bad about the marmalade. The balance between bitter and sweet was the essence of the thing," he says. The same can be said of life.

Author St. John's British-isms are a touch strange for a U.S. audience. Try saying "poor little sprog," "He's a prat" or "Things are whizzy" to friends around the house. Nevertheless, St. John is whizzy with dialogue in this fine novel that was short listed for the Booker Prize last year.