DOG DAYS

By Mavis Cheek

Simon and Schuster. 223 pp. $18.95

Patricia Murray is 40 years old, living in London with a husband, Gordon, she does not love and a daughter, Rachel, she adores. Off she goes to visit her eccentric friend, Phillida, who tells her that life "is not a dress rehearsal" but "the real thing" and that it is time for her to be getting on with it: "You've put all your emotional eggs in Rachel's basket and that isn't fair -- not on you and not on her. If you go on like this then one day you will turn to her and say, 'I gave up everything for you' ..."

The message gets through. Patsy tells Gordon off and writes a merry farewell to the marriage: The house is sold and a new, smaller one of her own is purchased, the chattels are divided with the usual mixture of regret and acrimony, and this woman who hasn't worked in ages even finds a job for herself as assistant credit controller "at a small company that sells computers." After more than a decade of marriage, Patsy is back in control of her life: "I knew the goal, I was sorting out the route. My destiny was back in my own hands again. I was a free woman, about to embark."

It's an embarkation all too familiar to all too many people in this age of marriages that can be terminated as casually as, in the case of Patsy and Gordon, they were established. Although Gordon lives nearby and is easily accessible to Rachel, Patsy finds that she must shoulder the weight of parenthood more than ever before; she reenters the social whirl as that peculiar creature, the divorced woman, part of her eager to test its waters and part of her delighted not to have a man in her life; and like so many people striking out on their own after years of cohabitation, she acquires a new partner for the journey -- in her case, a shaggy dog named Brian.

The acquisition was not her choice but Rachel's. "If I can't have Daddy," she asked upon learning of her parents' forthcoming split, "can I have a dog?" In truth Patsy hates dogs, but as anyone who has heard a similar question in similar circumstances knows all too well, there is only one answer to it. So off Patsy and Rachel go to Battersea Dogs' Home, and back they come with this nondescript, phlegmatic creature who somehow manages to worm his way into a central role in Rachel's new life:

"She had -- so far as I could see -- accepted the situation of our life change as inevitable and something that had to be got on with -- and while things remained on an even keel she would continue to do so. God knows what that half-baked dimwit from Battersea had brought to her -- a release for some of the love she had for Gordon and could not give him while they were apart, perhaps? An object to be pitied, something much worse off than her? Like {the} starving children in India? Whatever it was, it was good -- and it needed preserving."

Predictably, though, in time it is Patsy rather than Rachel who needs help. For quite a while she is "perfectly happy buzzing about like a bee in clover -- doing my job ... servicing Rachel and her life, seeing friends, decorating here and there and generally pottering on," and is pleased to have "my life perfectly compartmentalized and planned on a perfect, unassailable grid," but eventually nature reasserts itself. Patsy starts to get "cranky and irritable." What she needs is a man; how she goes about getting one, a supporting cast, is the business that occupies the rest of "Dog Days."

It's a smart, agreeable novel, occasionally a perceptive one. Mavis Cheek has some trouble getting it off the ground -- like an elderly DC-3 overladen with cargo, it lumbers down the runway for a long stretch before finally taking flight -- but once that's accomplished, the reading is easy. Like so many other British writers, Cheek has a facile prose style and a ready wit and a keen eye for the nuances of social and domestic life; "Dog Days" isn't knee-slapping funny, but it's consistently amusing, especially in its account of the relationship between Patsy and Gordon, a self-infatuated opera singer.

All of which is to say that "Dog Days" is essentially light, sophisticated entertainment, and that's meant as a compliment not a complaint. Into the bargain it's a thoughtful and compassionate yet unsentimental chronicle of divorce and renewal, subjects that of late have come to seem shopworn but into which Cheek breathes a bit of new life.