The front cover sports a quote from Beryl Bainbridge, writing in the now defunct Woman's Journal. Its says, "A compulsive read ... funny, observant and very real". Hmmm. I can't help wondering whether in fact dear Beryl got this book mixed up with advance proofs of Bridget Jones's Diary, and here's why.
The story of The Constant Mistress revolves around 44-year-old Laura, a woman with only months to live. On being handed the death sentence, Laura, who has never married, but has enjoyed a very active love life and a pretty successful career, brings together a dozen of the men who have shaped her emotional, sexual and professional life and announces that they are to play an important part in her last months.
With this device, Lambert goes on to look back at Laura's life through her many and extremely diverse loves, from studenthood and publishing in the glory days of the 1960s to international trade in the 1990s. And with it come meditations on love, family, fidelity, passion, domesticity, loneliness, promiscuity and children.
And a mystery. For Laura has a secret.
At the same time, Lambert unflinchingly describes Laura's illness, hepatitis C, which rapidly distorts her once-lovely body, and creepingly robs her of her energy, focus and sense of self.
Beryl, this book is not "funny". Wry, perhaps, yes. And this makes it not as dark as my outline would suggest. It is full of beautifully sketched characters, some you immediately fall madly in love with, and some you itch to strangle. And Laura herself is a real tour de force. There is no sentence wasted, and Lambert's descriptions of people and places are so true to life that I felt at times transported back to my old haunts in London publishing, particularly in the 1980s.
I would urge any woman who came of age in that short window of time between the invention of the Pill and the appearance of AIDs (and Bridget Jones) to seek out a copy of this book - although signs are it's unhappily now out of print (what are Penguin thinking?).
That's if you don't mind finding yourself weeping helplessly as I did through much of the second half. On the train, in parked cars, on the plane, over a solitary lunch, or cuddled up by the wood burner with a favourite cat.
I promise it will speak to you amid the Kleenex.