235 pages. $18.95.
Fay Weldon keeps churning out wickedly satirical novels witmen and women in a can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em attitude toward one another. "Darcy's Utopia," may not have as clever a conceit as its predecessor, "The Cloning of Joanna May," but it has a delightfully funny and wise character in Eleanor Darcy.
This is just as well, because the novel revolves around her to an unusual degree. The other two main characters, Valerie Jones and Hugo Vansitart, appear mainly to support and react to Eleanor. They both think they have exclusive interviews with the wife of Julian Darcy, the former vice chancellor of the University of Bridport, who once counseled the prime minister on financial matters but is now in jail for fraud. Hugo, one of the leading political journalists in England, is writing about Julian and Eleanor Darcy's theories of monetarism for the Independent. Valerie is writing the story of Eleanor's life for Aura, a women's magazine.
Hugo and Valerie meet at a media awards dinner, and Valerie surprises herself by going with Hugo afterward to a Holiday Inn, where the two of them live together for most of the rest of the book, although they are both married to other people. They have frequent and passionate sex, interrupting only to conduct their separate series of interviews with Eleanor Darcy and write the articles that come out of them. In some ways, it is everyone's fantasy: They escape from all responsibility and distractions and simply devote themselves to love and work.
Eleanor Darcy's early life, engagingly recounted chapter by chapter in Valerie's series of articles on her, was quite humble. She started out life, in her own words, "in a back street as Apricot Smith, an untidy, misbegotten child." Anxious to escape, she persuades the first man who pays much attention to her to marry her at 17.
Her husband, Bernard, a devout Catholic, insists that Apricot change her name to Ellen. Telling Bernard she is eager to convert to Catholicism, she becomes more religious than he, until he can't stand it anymore and becomes an atheist. He turns next to Marxism, but after a while she outdoes him at that, too. They both give it up and settle into more normal lives.
Or so it seems, until Bernard becomes obsessed by the idea that one of his students is practicing black magic and has placed a curse on him. As he foretells, he eventually loses his wife, his job and his car.Ellen, who always has an eye out for the main chance, is wooed away by Julian Darcy, a much older, very upper-class man, also married. When she marries Julian, she changes her name to Eleanor.
Interspersed with these chapters about Apricot/Ellen/Eleanor's life are Eleanor's interviews with Valerie and Hugo. The Darcian monetary theories on which Hugo is so keen -- based on induced hyperinflation -- are part of an entire utopian scheme in which money will have no importance.
Some of Eleanor's ideas are outrageous, such as the notion that fetuses should be aborted unless a neighborhood committee decides the baby should be born. At other times, she comes out with little bits of wisdom like: "If more than lip service is to be paid to the notion that we are all equal, then it must be first acknowledged that we are born unequal, and that some of us have to work harder than others to make up for it." Eleanor's own story makes her very conscious of the role that class plays in a person's destiny.
Eleanor Darcy's ideas are of some interest, but her life is much more so. She is a powerful character -- ruthless, perhaps, as her old school friends accuse her of being, but Ms. Weldon has never given us soft, yielding women. "Darcy's Utopia" shows she hasn't lost her touch.
Ms. Mooney is a writer living in Washington.