This is an odd, quirky book which isn't your usual Iris Murdoch: no near-drownings, nature mysticism or accidents involving machines, and only six characters: three men and three women, who change partners regularly in the manner of a Restoration comedy, or a Noel Coward play, until they've pretty much exhausted all the possible combinations. It's a witty book, but I wouldn't agree with the cover blurb which describes it as a "comic novel". Although the bed-hopping is entertaining for the reader, from the point of view of the characters themselves the whole thing is deadly serious. Indeed, I think this is one of the messages Murdoch is trying to get across: life can be painful and farcical at the same time...
Wine merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon is initially shocked to discover his wife Antonia is sleeping with her psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson. However, he himself is having an affair with a young student, and decides to do the civilised thing and give his tacit approval to his wife's relationship with Palmer, for the sake of an easy life all round. This cozy arrangement is rudely interrupted when Palmer's half-sister, Honor Klein, arrives on the scene: she accuses Martin of cowardice, infuriating him and resulting in a full-blown punch-up between Honor & Martin (in which Honor gives as good as she gets...) Things get even more complicated when Martin's brother Alexander reveals that he has also had an affair with Antonia; and when Martin suddenly realises that he is in love with Honor. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Martin (and the reader) have a huge shock in store.
Amongst other things, the book is "about" honesty: no-one is being honest to themselves or each other at the outset, and it is only when the aptly-named Honor forcefully points this out to Martin that things can move on. But, of course, Honor herself has significant unresolved issues.
Judging by other reviews, it seems to be very much a love-it-or-hate-it book. I enjoyed it, but was sometimes left wondering just what Murdoch was getting at. Even as dyed-in-the-wool a Murdoch enthusiast as A.S. Byatt didn't seem to be able to make up her mind whether she liked it or not in her book about Murdoch's early novels, "Degrees of Freedom". The novel contains a certain amount of Freudian and Jungian psychobabble which was very trendy in the 1960s when it was written, but seems fairly dated now: I suspect this is why some reviewers have found it pretentious. All the same, there is some great writing here, including some marvellous set pieces: Martin driving Honor through London in a thick fog which is a metaphor for the way he has lost the plot in his life; and a memorable scene involving a woman and a Samurai sword, forty years before Quentin Tarantino. Definitely worth a look.