By Fay Weldon. Grove. 268 pp. $24
Over the course of her long career, Fay Weldon's novels have earned her the competing reputations of feminist and anti-feminist, champion of women's rights and champion of men's rights, advocate for the underdog and sellout to commercial concerns. It's hard to generalize about the work of any author with nearly 40 books to her name, so it is perhaps safe to say only that Weldon is vast; she contains multitudes. That is precisely what makes her fiction a pleasure to read: With her ever-shifting alliances, she is a writer who has sympathy and affection for all of her characters, but no single one of them is spared her piercing, insightful, razor-like wit. There may be heroes and villains in her books, but they all have complicated and real impulses that humanize them -- reasons for needing $600 Armani blouses, reasons for staying with husbands who throw the occasional punch. Her social satire is never cruel or one-sided, and it is almost always acute.
That said, Mantrapped, her most recent venture, is a strange little book. Half-novel and half-memoir, it is made up of chapters that switch back and forth between narrative and musings from Weldon -- on her past, her real-life relationships, her career, the book she is in the middle of writing (and you're in the middle of reading). This alternating structure renders the novel a stop-and-start affair: One minute Weldon is spinning together a plot, the next she has spiraled off into a reverie about her ex-husband's taste in real estate, and then she is back to the plot, picking up her characters where she left them. The connections between the novel and the commentary are sometimes quite clear, as when the protagonist's teary breakdown is followed by a section called "Times I Have Cried in Public." Sometimes they are less obvious, as when a scene from the novel about the differences between men and women's bodies occasions an autobiographical vignette about a 1971 camping trip to France. The novel and the autobiography are each delightful in its own way, but combined they somehow amount to less than the sum of their parts.
The plot of Mantrapped, when it bothers to have one, concerns the supernatural switching of souls by Trisha Perle, a former actress and lottery winner who has managed to fritter away her £3 million windfall, and Peter Watson, a handsome, well-heeled researcher at one of London's daily newspapers. By chance Trisha and Peter (who are otherwise strangers) cross paths at their local dry cleaner's, where Trisha does pick-up mending in exchange for a break on her rent and where Peter comes to settle a delivery dispute his girlfriend Doralee has gotten into with the owner of the shop. As they brush past each other on the steps, Trisha's soul somehow winds up in Peter's body, and Peter's winds up in Trisha's. There we have it: a man's brain in a woman's body, a woman's brain in a man's. And if this situation sounds reminiscent of any number of Disney movies, rest assured that Weldon is versed enough in popular culture and reality television to know all about them.
Weldon sometimes uses the premise of Mantrapped as a jumping-off point for passages about serious topics: class, gentrification, sex, marriage. Her perceptions on these subjects are as withering and accurate as ever. For example, when the owner of the dry-cleaning shop assesses Peter, who has come in to complain about poor service, she says: "His lot affected an accent she would be ashamed of, speaking through their noses and hardly opening their mouths. . . . People today were at pains to let the world know they belonged to the new world order. Theirs was not an existence of marriage, domesticity and trouble. Theirs was one in which no one smoked, no one married, and others cleaned the clothes, the better to maximize their lifespan."
When Weldon stays focused on her narrative, she is as shrewd and penetrating a literary observer as one could hope to read. But Mantrapped often rambles from topic to topic, and the juxtaposition of memoir and fiction feels too much like free association to be satisfying. Another installment of Weldon's captivating autobiography, Auto da Fay, may be warranted, but here the reflections on her literary celebrity, her career's arc and the evolution of her understanding of writing seem a bit self-indulgent, and they don't do much to improve or deepen the novel at hand.
Francesca Delbanco's first novel, "Ask Me Anything," was published last winter.