January 14, 1985 12:00 PM

by Elizabeth Jolley

In this uniquely witty Australian novel, Dorothy Peabody is in her 50s. She works at a dull job in a London office and looks after her ancient, ailing mother. Life is not easy. She says her mother “cries if I give her flowers, says they are slowly dying in the vase, says it breaks her heart to see them. ‘Dotty, don’t give me flowers,’ she always says; once she cried for a week about some carnations.” After Miss Peabody reads a romantic novel by an Australian named Diana Hopewell, she writes the author and, to her surprise, in reply gets a series of letters that turn out to be chapters in a new novel. Hopewell is nothing if not honest, and she describes one of her earlier books this way: “The story itself is very simple, a bit sordid in places; it’s about two utterly abject women, both postmenopausal, who have a brief and unexciting love affair.” Miss Peabody becomes obsessed by Hopewell’s letters and by the long replies in which she tries to make her own impoverished life sound interesting. In Hopewell’s novel the headmistress of an exclusive school for girls in Australia is an incredibly comic character: large, serious-minded, devoted to her “gels” and to hard booze. Catastrophes befall the fictional characters, and Miss Pea-body’s life takes a surprising turn at the climax, too. Jolley, the English-born author of three other novels, has lived in Australia since 1959. Her humor is infectious and sparked with surprises. Hopewell writes, “There is, too, a thin line between truth and fiction, and there are moments in the writing of fantasy and imagination where truth is suddenly revealed.” Jolley herself, thank goodness, knows all about such things. (Viking, $13.95)

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