''Women can be poor one day and rich, or at least married to a rich man, the next,'' the British writer/actor Julian Fellowes observes in Snobs, his puckish and thoroughly pleasurable first novel. ''It might not be fashionable to admit it but even in this day and age, a woman's life can be utterly transformed by means of the right ring.'' No, indeed it is not fashionable to admit it, which may account for the fact that I product of the American meritocracy, feminism, and a liberal education was well into my 30s before I twigged to this obvious fact. Money plays a leading role, of course, in Edith Wharton novels and period dramas like 2001's Gosford Park (for which Fellowes wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay). But in contemporary literature, financial calculations figure in the mating rituals of only the tackiest Botoxed heroines stalking the novels of Candace Bushnell.
Edith Lavery, the protagonist of Snobs, isn't tacky; she would argue that she is simply ''practical'' and ''worldly.'' An ''English blonde with large eyes and nice manners,'' she comes from a respectable if socially undistinguished family, and at 27, after a few dead-end relationships and unfulfilling office jobs, she has come to a calm and reasonable conclusion: ''How else was she to enjoy the good things in life if she did not marry them?'' After all, ''it was no longer unfashionable to want to be affluent. The brown rice and dirndl-skirted generation of her childhood had given way to a brasher, post-Thatcherite world and weren't her dreams, in a way, in tune with that development?''
The nameless narrator of the novel is one of Edith's confidants, an actor who has the wit to offer a shrewd, funny commentary on Edith's adventures and the breeding to wear the correct suit to Ascot. While visiting friends in the country, Edith meets Charles Broughton a sweet, boring nobleman with a huge fortune, a chilly mansion, and an even chillier mother named Googie. Edith soon succeeds in ''landing her fish,'' withholding sex like a Victorian maiden until the wedding night. And, like many a Victorian maiden, she is badly disappointed by her new husband's artless lovemaking ''if that was what they had just been through.'' ''Thank you, darling,'' he habitually announces after perfunctory sex, ''as if she had just brought him a cup of tea.''
Passion has always been a casualty of the ''advantageous'' match, a price that old-school, stiff-upper-lip Googie and her cohorts were prepared to pay. But can a young woman in ''our sloppy century'' endure a lack-luster union? Edith savors the status of her marriage, but feels entitled to something more. Soon she begins an indiscreet affair.
It's a rare treat to watch contemporary characters coolly sort out their personal lives, consciously trying to strike that tricky balance between head and heart. Charles emerges as the book's most sympathetic character, a limited man capable of unlimited heartbreak, devoted to an ambitious, appealing, and basically nice young wife. Fellowes has a high time skewering the foibles of the landed British gentry their penchant for silly nicknames like Sausage, their stinginess with alcohol, their stodgy food. But in fact, this easy humor detracts from his more serious achievement, which is to lay bare the machinations of a modern, mercenary marriage without turning his characters into monsters.