August 13, 1984 12:00 PM

by Muriel Spark

An independently wealthy Canadian named Harvey Gotham has rented a caretaker’s cottage in rural France so he can work on a thesis he is writing about God as He is revealed in the Book of Job. Gotham has left his British wife, Effie, a beautiful young woman, after she disgusts him by stealing some candy at a highway shop, but he ignores her pleas for a divorce. Her sister’s husband, a minister who has become an actor, comes to see Gotham. Later the actor’s wife brings Effie’s illegitimate infant by a new lover and moves in with Gotham. That hurried plot summary covers only the beginning of the novel, the 17th by this writer, and here it seems hopelessly confused. In Muriel Spark’s hands, the incredibly blithe characters and their fantastically random behavior become perfectly clear. In one remarkable scene Gotham reluctantly lets in a crowd of rowdy reporters who are anxious to quiz him about Effie’s role as a terrorist who robs supermarkets. He gives them a lecture that involves the question of Job and suffering. The Only Problem has at its heart a number of very serious themes-violence and superficial relationships, for instance—but Spark manipulates them in her own perverse way to create a delightful bubble of a book. Nobody else writes crisper prose, and when Spark gets a scene going, no other writer can provide more brittle little pleasures per page than she does. (Putnam, $14.95)

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