I found the narrator, Bradley Pearson, maddeningly self-centered, emotionally dishonest, and thoroughly irritating. (In fairness, I should note that the book jacket uses words like "appealing" to describe him, so perhaps it's just me.) He goes on at length about minutia that only he could possibly care about, while refusing to scrape up more than a scrap of human feeling for his supposed friends. He seems thoroughly real--perhaps I've even known a few people like him--but what a jerk! I spent most of this book just wanting to slap him.
Bradley is an author who doesn't write anything anymore, but is always getting ready to start on the masterpiece he knows his next work will be. But, of course, he's writing the book you hold in your hand--which comes deliciously layered with forwards and postscripts by the characters themselves--so there is some wonderful reality play going on here.
Bradley is part of a romantically incestuous circle of friends: his "best friend" (I say that ruefully because Bradley really doesn't care about anyone but himself) is a very prolific author who gets into violent rows with his wife and then calls Bradley to pick up the pieces.
The wife makes a play for Bradley, who is willing enough but too distracted to take things very far.
Later, Bradley falls madly in love with the couple's daughter and they spend a wildly passionate week together. That ends badly when she realizes, among other things, their 40-year age difference (not to mention Bradley's chronic inability to tell the truth about anything).
Meanwhile, the "best friend" is in love with Bradley's ex-wife, who is still in love with Bradley, who refuses to have anything to do with her. But of course Bradley can't resist writing her letters and dropping by her house to tell her how very much he doesn't want to have anything to do with her.
Bradley's sister is emotionally wrecked by having left her husband, and comes to Bradley for refuge, which he is completely incapable of providing.
A lot of this action is facilitated by Bradley's ex-wife's brother, a doctor who has lost his license and winds up functioning as Bradley's sidekick, and who is also gay and somewhat ambiguously in love with Bradley.
See what I mean when I say "incestuous"? What these people need are some outside connections, some new blood, some new victims besides each other! But who would join such a circle of friends?
Iris Murdoch continues to be one of my favorite authors. She is thoroughly in control of her craft, managing multiple characters and plot lines with aplomb, and never stopping the action even when Bradley digresses into high-minded discussions of Art and Life. I admire her ability to entertain me, even while I disliked all of her characters and their endless romantic permutations.
I'm willing to concede that perhaps it's just me. Although I'm generally pretty forgiving of human weakness, I found these people insufferable. Slaps all 'round for this crew. Except Iris herself. She rocks.
It was now, I was surprised to see from my watch, nearly eight o'clock in the evening. The sun was shining again, though a part of the sky was covered with dark metallic cloud which had been drawn across it like a curtain. There was a rather lurid light, such as these early summer evenings can produce, when a clear but strengthless sun shines at the approach of night. I noticed green leaves in the suburban gardens outlined with an awful clarity. The feathered songsters were still pouring forth their nonsense.I felt very tired and a little muzzy and weak at the knees with fear and shock. A mixture of emotions raged. Partly, I still felt something of the sheer unholy excitement which I had experienced initially at the thought of a friend (especially this one) in trouble. I felt too that, as far as the trouble was concerned, I had acquitted myself quite well. However it was also possible that I might have to pay the penalty for this. Both Arnold and Rachel might resent my role and wish to punish me for it. This was a particularly irritating anxiety to develop just as I was proposing to go away and forget all about Arnold for a time. It was alarming to find myself suddenly so bound up by exasperation, irritation, affection. . . . I wondered if I should not now delay my departure until after Sunday. On Sunday I could test the atmosphere, estimate the damage, make some sort of peace. Then I could depart in a suitable state of indifference.