"Love at first sight - that old thing! Helen and Clifford looked at one another...something quivered in the air between them and, for good or bad, Nell began."
The witty, mischievous and supremely artful Fay Weldon announces on the first page of The Hearts and Lives of Men that she has written a love story and give away its ending - happy. It is a love story, though, with all the obstacles, both devilish and divine - a tale of innocence corrupted and selfishness reformed.
Helen Lally is 22, the stunning daughter of an impoverished artist whose fame and fortune will soon be made. Woe to her for catching the eye of Clifford Wexford, a 35-year-old art dealer, rapaciously ambitious, eminently eligible and careless of all lives but his town. In the space of nine months in the ever-so-swinging 60's, Helen and Clifford meet, fall instantly in love, marry and product the enchanting Nell.
But there the want changes hands, as it will, time and again, in the course of this seductively high-spirited move. "Someone, somewhere, must be wicked," says the narrator, "or the world wouldn't be in the state it's in." Clifford falls prey to a scheming heiress; the perfect marriage ends in divorce; and little Nell, due to her parents' fecklessness and avarice, is lost. Lost to them, that is, until years later, when they have learned enough to deserve her.
Written in a writer's prime, in a state of grace, The Hears of Lives of Men is a modern fable for grown-ups. Good triumphs over evil; true love outlasts lust and greed; and if some people are beyond redemption, the justice they are dealt is perfectly crated and deeply satisfying. As is Fay Weldon's splendid new novel.