Vile bodies Don’t You Want Me India Knight 272pp, Penguin In this follow-up to her hugely successful My Life On a Plate, India Knight explores new shallows. Her heroine, 38-year-old Stella, shares her Primrose Hill house with her 18-month-old daughter, Honey, and her handsome but red-haired lodger, Frank. Stella does “the odd translating job”, but is more fully occupied with sleeping off her hangovers, applying make-up, taking it off again, and – mostly – worrying about where the next shag is coming from. Stella hasn’t had sex since the departure, a year ago, of Honey’s art-dealer father, Dominic. (Actually, Dominic left when Honey was eight months old, which makes her 20 months, not 18, and later Stella says he left “a couple of years ago”. This is one of several irritating lazinesses, like referring to Gordon the non-tank engine as green when, as any fule kno, he’s blue.) Yes, Stella’s up for it, and by page 59 she’s found it. A plastic surgeon with dyed chest hair sits next to her at a dinner party and performs cunnilingus on a fig. As they do. Inexplicably, Stella goes home with him. He makes tiger noises, plays doctors and nurses, dances to Barry White with his hand down her knickers. But Stella isn’t truly horrified until she discovers that the fig-feller is – pass the sick-bag – over 60! How dare he? “‘Nooooo!’ I wail. ‘Nooooo! Nooooo!’” It’s too much for Rupert, one of her exes, who makes a bogus application to Meals on Wheels on her behalf. This is where the book becomes worse than just silly. If you’re old, fat, ugly, badly dressed, or interested in anything other than bum jokes and fleshly gratification, you’re mocked. The nuisance call to Meals on Wheels is presented uncritically. We’re simply meant to think it’s funny. “Spastic” is a term of abuse. Stella is asked if she’s been to India. “I really loved the shops,” she says, and we are to applaud this wilfully dumbed-down response. Dominic’s girlfriend, Keiko, hearing that Stella has been married before, “claps her hands together, like a child”. “Ho! Many, many husband!” Well, of course she’s an imbecile – she’s Japanese. Stella has no friends, a fact she finds harder to account for than does the reader. (”I don’t deserve my life! I really don’t.”) She joins a toddler group, looking for kindred spirits. There she meets “an elephantine woman wearing a tightly belted pastel blue jumpsuit… the creature reminds me of a cow”. She disapproves of the toddlers’ names – Hector, Perdita, Ichabod – and therefore of their mothers. (I have a problem with Honey, myself, perhaps only because it’s the name of my old dog.) Knight’s satire of the PC ethos falls flat because it overstretches reality. Only in novels like this do people say “We don’t believe in gender stereotypes here, do we, everyone?” or insist on reading toddlers “a slim little volume about siblings with no arms”. Stella scorns the children’s artistic endeavours, eating habits, runny noses. The first words she addresses to a child are “Oi! Don’t bloody do that!” Aloud she calls this child a “horrible little fucker”. Again, cue for applause. At last, she spots a mother in pink cashmere who is pretty enough to be her friend. Louisa is a “softer, fresher version of Madonna”. Stella and Louisa both like getting drunk and talking about snogging. In fact, they only talk about snogging. So when Stella decides she wants to snog Louisa’s neighbour, MC Yungsta, aka Adrian, and Louisa wants to reciprocate with ginger Frank, they arrange a double date. Stella’s confidence needs repair: she’s learned that at orgasm she snorts like a pig. This discovery is her epiphany, her Box Hill moment. Self-knowledge isn’t Stella’s bag, but this hits home: “I don’t think I have actually ever been so ashamed.” The double date makes matters worse because she realises she’s jealous of Best Friend Louisa: she wants Frank for herself, red hair and all. Is she too late? And is it true that Frank has an abandoned baby back in Newcastle? This is the one nod at moral seriousness. “I really feel there is something the matter with him morally…Sorry to throw about the big scary words.” The matter is easily resolved. No baby exists. Frank has slept with Louisa, but seeing her off takes less time. “She was imagining herself more or less engaged to you.” “Silly her, then.” And that’s that. Frank and Stella are off to bed, as selfish and venal as each other. Yes, I know it’s only a romp. But Nancy Mitford romps, and still gives us real characters, genuine dilemmas. Knight’s flow of wisecracks and her cute line in adverbs – friendlily, ploddily, gruntily, bummily – can’t disguise the lack of heart, of genuine hilarity, of fresh air; she captures nothing of the glory of women in their prime. Don’t You Want Me ? I’m afraid I don’t.