TEA and irony are what's being served up in British novels such as those of Elizabeth Jane Howard; the sympathy is implicit. Getting It Right is a lovely and loving book, and one of its nicest features is the affection the author displays for its disparate characters--none of whom, if you met them in passing, might it occur to you to love. Gavin Lamb, for example, the hero, is a 31-year- old London hairdresser, who's been cutting and shaping and murmuring to the back of women's heads since he was 17. Almost painfully shy, he lives at home with his parents (whose philistinism he doesn't share) and suffers the agonies of bad skin and dandruff. His eyes, Howard tells us, are "the colour of ginger nuts, and gave the impression of resting widely apart upon very shallow declivities--he had been called Froggy at school."

However, Gavin is a proper hero, despite all that, and his attractive smile manages, somehow, to redeem the unprepossessing rest. A virgin, Gavin isn't especially eager to remedy his lack of experience. His standards are too high to allow him to settle for just anyone, and though his dear friend Harry tries to convince him in a well-meaning way that his fate lies with men, Gavin masturbates at home daydreaming of slender, beautiful girls who dwell in French Impressionist-style landscapes.

Harry, too, is a highly likeable fellow, once one gets to know him. A masseur who's devoted to his mum, a retired char, Harry lives with the fickle, often surly Winthrop, whose muscles and auburn curls are his main charms. Here's Harry, excusing to Gavin one of his lover's frequent sulks: "Winthrop's having a bit of a moody. If I've told him once, I've told him a hundred times he must not use the Wok without oiling it. Pay no attention to him--he's just a child." Harry himself is kind, thoughtful, loyal and generous, and it is through him that Gavin's limited social life is mostly arranged.

Having given us first off the scenes of Gavin's uneventful life--the salon where he works, his suburban house, Harry's flat--Howard moves quickly to widen her hero's acquaintance. The occasion is a large, noisy, crisis-filled party, during the course of which two new women come into Gavin's life. Joan, the hostess, is very rich and more than a little alarming as she towers above him with her bright orange hair and punk-garish rhinestone glasses. Minerva, a fellow guest, is also rich, in neuroses as well as family money: anoretic, dispiritedly promiscuous and whiny, she's part debutante, part bag- lady. Eventually, the former will gently initiate Gavin into the mysteries of sex, but it is the latter who follows him home that night. Both are desperately needy when it comes to love, and, alas for Gavin, he's convenient. Self-effacing and automatically polite, he's used to clients, not relationships.

Thus, the story begins, rather like a board game that has a number of detours and penalties to endure before the player reaches a safe space. The game might be called "Getting It Right," and Gavin eventually does, but dozens of times along the way Howard provides for small comic masterpieces. With every setting, each situation, every encounter, she charmingly displays her satiric gifts, and the resulting amusement rests lightly upon the page. There's no feeling of straining for laughs; they're there naturally. For the beauty parlor bits alone, and the inventive but nonetheless familiar-to-us-all roster of customers Gavin has to cope with, this novel-- Howard's seventh--is worth the price.

It's difficult to pick a favorite moment. The morning after Joan's party, when Gavin has to explain Minerva to his lower-middle-class parents, is marvelous, painful and funny at the same time. They've never seen him with a date, so imagine their consternation when a strange young woman turns up at breakfast. The solution: Gavin presents her as "Lady" Minerva Munday, using their awe of the (unpredictable) nobility to distract them from being scandalized. "I've had a job to get your father into his suit, and I haven't had time to mitre the serviettes. Have you brought the papers in? Although I expect Lady Munday knows all the news." "Why should she do that, Mum?" " 'Privilege,' she said sharply. 'It's Them who tell us what's going on.' " In spite of Mrs. Lamb's protestations that she would be making the same morning preparations if "the Queen" herself were coming to breakfast, it's hardly a normal meal, what with chatting about stately homes, death duties, coronets and ermine, deer parks, haunted towers and the Season. Minerva, a chronic liar anyway, can't resist playing to her audience.

But Getting It Right, like Howard's previous books, does not just amuse to no purpose. It's humanism with a humorous mien; and with Howard, always sharp but benevolent, at our side, we see beneath the surface of what's happening. If you think that the Gavins of this world are oblivious or even, perhaps, beneath your notice, listen to this: "Later, as he wrapped the tapered wisps of hair in the paper soaked in the perming solution and fastened each into its small roller, he wondered fleetingly what it would be like if people actually behaved to one another exactly as they felt, instead of filtering their reactions until some suitable thin response trickled through. He would have shouted at Mr. Adrian. He would have smacked that dog. 'Don't be so bloody patronising!' he would have said to Mrs. Shack."

In her earlier work, such as Odd Girl Out, After Julius and The Long View (all recently reissued in paperback --run, don't walk), Howard showed herself to be a master at the dissection of upper-middle-class marriages. Now, however, and with equal success, she has cast her net further from her own milieu. Getting It Right seems a more hopeful tale than some of the earlier ones; one doesn't, after all, have to be an irredeemable cynic in order to be wickedly droll.