'The Radiant Way' is the first (and to my mind in some ways the strongest) of a trilogy of novels dealing with three women living in London in the 1980s and their families and friends. Liz, Alix and Esther are all from very different backgrounds in Northern England, but (thanks in part to the grammar school system - though much abused these days it did give some working-class people a real chance for a better life) all gain places at Cambridge and become inseparable friends. 'The Radiant Way' follows their lives from New Year's Eve 1979 through to the mid-1980s. Thatcher's Britain is vividly brought to life in all its horrors: increased financial greed; miners' strikes; cuts to education; the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. But Drabble also shows the beauty of London with its great variety of landscape, and describes wonderfully such things as gardens, interiors, meals and works of art. She's also great - without being pedantic - on social history, telling many a moving story, among which I particularly liked the one about Brian, a working-class Northern boy who in the 1960s (there's quite a lot of flashbacks from the 1980s in the book), via a brief grounding in the army and night classes, gets to university and becomes a novelist and a teacher of English, and marries Alix.
Against this brilliantly painted background the three women's lives develop in unexpected ways. Liz, whose television-producer husband announces just after midnight on New Year's Eve that he's leaving her for the aristocratic Lady Henrietta Latchett (one of the few characters in the novel that remains a bit lifeless) struggles with and gets used to singledom and is forced to confront her poverty-stricken Northern past, her crazy mother and the mysterious disappearance of her father, who vanished when she was a child. Alix, a part-time English teacher and part-time civil servant working largely with young girl offenders, curses Thatcher's cuts (which make her husband, teacher in a college of continuing education, fear for his job) and tries, in an essentially corrupt society, to live a morally good life. Esther, an elegant Jewish art historian, moves between England and Italy, and balances various erotic interests: a lover of longstanding in Italy who appears to be going crazy; his calm and elegant sister, who clearly loves Esther; and a young Conservative minister and patron of the arts who makes it clear he finds Esther very attractive. On the way, there is a crime mystery involving the 'Horror of Harrow Road' (a man who kills young women and executes them), and various other little mysteries to be solved. Occasionally Drabble spreads herself a bit too thin. Alix's almost-romance, for example, is never really brought to life and is dropped into the book too late to have any narrative weight (or indeed, as Alix still loves her husband Brian) to be convincing. But on the whole this is a rich, very enjoyable epic novel of life in 1980s London, peopled with a vivid cast of characters. Realistic fiction at its best.