Fay Weldon is the latest well-known author to consciously jumble the lines between autobiography and fiction, but she's a lot less coy about it than...

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by Fay Weldon

Grove Press, 272 pp., $24

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Fay Weldon is the latest well-known author to consciously jumble the lines between autobiography and fiction, but she’s a lot less coy about it than most.

In “Mantrapped,” British author Weldon typically gives you the low-down straight up: She’s written short chapters of fiction, alternating with short chapters about her own adult life, from the 1960s on. (The latter pick up where her more straightforward memoir, “Auto Da Fay,” left off.)

The result is untidy, often diverting and sometimes genuinely revealing — rather like the messy but colorful living quarters of one of Weldon’s bedeviled female characters, who are forever coping with duplicitous men, devious friends, and the vagaries of society and fate.

An acerbic comic portraitist and forthright feminist, Weldon’s plot for the novel half of “Mantrapped” is pretty rickety.

It centers on a sketchy accidental soul-swap between two Londoners, a switch which catapults Trisha, a down-on-her-luck former Lottery winner, into the body of a younger, yuppyish fellow, Peter. And visa versa.

Though Weldon lets you in on her process of giving all the characters a past, parents and motivations, it’s ultimately Doralee (an uptight young careerist co-habiting with Peter) who most interests her. Why? Clearly, Doralee is part of a generation of women who (unlike Weldon and her peers) doesn’t feel it imperative to bear babies, raise them, marry, or rein in one’s professional ambitions.

By contrast, Weldon (in, for me, the best parts of the book) looks back vividly on her own imperfect marriages, somewhat slapdash (but fond) parenting, and her literary education at the instruction of at least one famous male writer who thought housewives weren’t worth much as fictional fodder.

Thank goodness Weldon didn’t take that advice too seriously. Children, husbands and all, she worked as an ad writer, a dramatist (she wrote plays and teleplays, including the first episode of the great British TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs”) and eventually an author of such serio-comic novels as “Lives and Loves of a She-Devil” and “Wicked Women.” (Weldon also was chastised in Britain recently, for writing a novel commissioned by a jewelry company, “The Bulgari Connection.”)

“Mantrapped” could have used a heavier hand in the editing. It sags most in the fictional realm, when Trisha and Peter muse on and on about their new bodies and unfamiliar genders.

More intriguing are the complex reflections of Weldon (now in her 80s) on her longest marriage (to an antique dealer). And on how some leading female artists and writers of her generation saw themselves (crazy, doomed, inspired, tied to men, a la Sylvia Plath) versus how the more liberated, pragmatic women creators of today operate — and what may have been lost in that shift, apart from the suicides and breakdowns.

Misha Berson is the theater critic

for The Seattle Times.