Open and shut

Press Association, August 31 2004

The Closed Circle, by Jonathan Coe, Viking, £17.99. Available 2 September

If you read Jonathan Coe's 2001 novel The Rotters' Club, you'll have been waiting for The Closed Circle. This is the promised sequel, the one that tells you where all those smart 70s schoolchildren ended up.

If you didn't, there is no need to feel left out. True, this book is filled with echoes of its predecessor. And yes, there's a crib-sheet at the back. But given how much time the characters spend reminiscing, you're unlikely to need it. You could even start to feel nostalgic for The Rotters' Club yourself.

Here's the main disappointment: Benjamin Trotter, writer, composer and dreamer, has become an accountant - a senior partner at a firm he's stayed with for a dozen years. And his true love, Cecily, has vanished. He's writing a thousand-page novel about her, which must please his wife.

The school paper's other stars, Doug and Phil, have both made it as journalists, but the big success is Paul, Benjamin's Thatcher-fancying little brother. He's now a Blairite MP, married with a daughter and a junior Government job.

All is upset, however, when the Trotter boys begin to compete over Malvina, a mysterious student whom Benjamin sees as an artistic soulmate and Paul recruits as an advisor and (he hopes) lover. Malvina won't be stuck as a mistress. "When it comes to a situation like this," she warns Paul, "there is no third way."

To these tangles, Coe adds a murder-mystery - one which helps Claire Newman, a minor figure in the first book, grow impressively - the threatened closure of the Longbridge car plant, and a half-dozen other well-managed sub-plots. The comic set-pieces, a Coe speciality, still kick hard.

But The Closed Circle remains the weaker end of this pantomime horse. The satire is undermined by the thinness of Paul's character - we have no idea why he joined Labour, or what else he did between 1979 and 1997 - and the structural cleverness by the need to point it out for new readers.

In The Rotters' Club, Coe made the 1970s new - fierce and strange, rather than simply kitsch. Here, for all his sharp observation, he proves the present can be less vivid than the past.