JILLY COOPER calls Appassionata her "sex and Chopin" novel; a particularly dreadful pun, given there's very little of the poet of the piano and hardly any cacophony of the cash register in its, 600-odd pages. It is, however, set in the world of classical music and therefore demanded rigorous research on Ms Cooper's part - research which, as she declares in her acknowledgments, included touring Spain in the company of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, touring the south of England with the Bournemouth
Symphony and asking professional musicians of varying hues questions like "could you bonk a small woman on a glockenspiel?"
Having waded through Appassionata, I have a question of my own. Why do people read Jilly Cooper? More to the point, why - without being ordered to do so by an armed thug - do people buy, and presumably read, every single novel Jilly Cooper writes?
Perhaps it's her characters. Appassionata is by way of being a concerto grosso, with the Rutminster (where else?) Symphony Orchestra - an appalling ensemble among whose members are to be found a trumpeter called Randy Hamilton, a cellist called Nellie the Nympho and a pair of basses (a nice pair, naturally) called Dirty Harry and El Squeako - providing the accompaniment for a quartet of soloists, namely Marcus the gay pianist, Flora the jolly violist, Abby the brilliant but very silly violinist who is forced to take up conducting for a living after she slashes her bowing hand in a jealous frenzy, and last but unquestionably not least, Viking the (nudge, nudge) horn player. (Quick-witted readers will spot at once that Viking is Irish; he says "onless" and "disgosst" and he wears boxer shorts covered in Golden Retrievers carrying The Irish Times).
Alas, the aforementioned characters are, without exception, without redemption. The orchestra's musical habits are frightful, its personal ones frightening. Abby is a self-absorbed psychotic. Marcus is a wimp. Flora is - well, she's a viola player, darling, 'nuff said, and besides she has hideous taste in men, rejecting the blond, bedenimed Viking for a series of pudgy North of England industrialists. As for Viking himself, when he isn't carving out an international recording career, giving free master classes to primary children or playing golden oldies at the old folks' home, he's bonking every-, thing in sight with an insouciance which is most unbecoming in a post-AIDS society.
Then again, isn't that supposed to be the kernel of Jilly Cooper's appeal? The bonking? Harmless erotic fun for bored commuters? Well, there's certainly plenty of it, and all unabashedly up-front - apart from a single, strangely coy gay love scene between Marcus and, guess what, a Russian ballet dancer. But here's a curious thing. There is, in Jilly Cooper's sex scenes, a recurring Leitmotif: the use of the verb "pleasuring", as in, "on another sofa, Rodney noticed his Third Trumpet pleasuring a blonde". Now if that's even remotely erotic, I'm Shostakovich.
So if it isn't the bonking, and it isn't the characters, what on earth constitutes the joy of Jilly? Not the plot, surely - in this case, a ramshackle affair which opens with a totally irrelevant adoption in Bogota, meanders through some tedious sub-business in which a nasty Italian conductor waves his big stick at a series of unsuitable women, and finally arrives at the theme of Abby and her orchestra somewhere around page 150, necessitating the introduction of an entirely new bunch of characters (Randy the trumpeter, etc., as above - and did I mention El Creepo the First Violist?)
No, it has to be the bad jokes, one or two of which are so awful they're almost funny. Like the episode in which a couple of free-loading Arts Council types, noted for their penchant for expense-account desserts, receive a bombe surprise of a different order when the entire brass section of the Rutminster Symphony does a moonie at them from the window of a passing coach. Or when a local amateur's Interruption Suite for burglar alarm, fax machine, coughing, snoring, rustling and a chorus of lavatory chains is nominated for a Gramophone award. These moments of high farce are few and far between in a novel whose pace, for all its surface busy-ness, is more Andante ponderoso than Allegro giocoso; for my money, they're not worth the bother of the rest. But here's one to note down and keep for a rainy day when you find yourself among a gloomy gathering of starch-fronted classical music heads. "What," the sponsor's wife inquires innocently of the Rutminster Symphony's First Horn, "do you chappies call a female maestro?
"Mattress," is the inevitable reply. Thank goodness somebody got an answer.