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SOURCE: Evans, Faith. “In Consort.” New Statesman 107, no. 2755 (6 January 1984): 23.
[In the following review, Evans comments that Britannia's Daughters: Women of the British Empire offers “excellent illustrations of its subject matter,” but laments the volume's lack of reference material and a conclusion.]
Queen Victoria, quoted here in 1870, reminds us how little Britain's women leaders have done to promote their sisters' cause:
… this mad, wicked folly of ‘women's rights’, with all the attendant horrors on which her poor feeble sex seems bent … is a subject which makes the queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created man and woman different and let each remain in their position …
Most of Victoria's female subjects had little choice but to follow their paternalistic monarch's advice and remain prone. With some striking exceptions, those who travelled to her colonies invariably made the journey in a subservient or caring capacity: as governess, nurse, helpmeet or wife, Kipling's memsahib held sway not just in India but in all the outposts of empire, compensating for alien climates, loneliness and enforced separation from her children by recreating a sterling slice of little England wherever she found herself. Duty, loyalty and moral purpose were the sentiments that governed her existence. In Forster's liberal revision of the type, these imperial values are challenged, but by female wisdom. As Mrs Moore testifies, maternal strengths still formed the whalebone of empire, even when it approached self-questioning decline.
Accounting for the memsahib is typical of the problems that confront the feminist historian who sets out to rescue women from male history. It's hard to resist the tendency to mythologise, by applying generalised contemporary assumptions to an earlier period. Trying to save a 19th-century botanist, for example, whose regular income permits her to send back delicate drawings of African specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, in the same leaky vessel as a prostitute forcibly deported to Tasmania, simply on the grounds that they were contemporaries, threatens to become as indiscriminate an enterprise as, say, a comparison between George Eliot and Cora Pearl.
Joanna Trollope is jauntily undeterred by the imminent contradictions of her subject. Britannia's Daughters offers excellent illustrations but no footnotes or conclusion, ending, somewhat incongruously, with an account of the career of Nellie Melba. Her book is organised as a series of vignettes. She is suitably indignant about the evils of lock hospitals and the Contagious Diseases Acts, and about the humiliating treatment of soldiers' wives, selected by lottery to accompany their men to the battlefield.
These ‘ordinary women’ left little testimony, but there are useful potted biographies of those pioneers (usually considered to be cranks) who were sufficiently literate and privileged to be able to contemplate posterity: the Countess of Dufferin, founder of the awesomely named National Association for Supplying Female Medical Aid to the Women of India, which alleviated the purdah problem by instituting women-only hospitals and training colleges; Maria Rye, who released many governesses from the Jane Eyre syndrome by packing them off to more appreciative employers in New Zealand, Australia and Natal; the lady travellers whose works are now coming back into print—Mary Kingsley, Isabella Bird and Marianne North. Most interesting of all is Flora Shaw, an Irish-French journalist whose commitment to imperialism was mercifully untainted by religious zeal. So astute were her reports on the economic and political situation in the colonies that in the early 1890s she was appointed colonial editor of The Times, working closely with Cecil Rhodes and successfully fielding the notorious fracas over the paper's involvement in the Jameson Raid....
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But in tune with her times, even Flora Shaw became a memsahib in the end, marrying Lord Lugard at 51 and standing by his side as he governed Hong Kong. An ironical fate for a New Woman who, on a visit to Capetown in 1892, had been accorded the double-edged accolade: ‘She was so much more interested in the thing she was discussing than in herself, that men discussing politics with her forgot she was a woman and talked to her freely as to another man.’
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SOURCE: Fitton, Toby. “A Zeal for the Fabric.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4445 (10 June 1988): 643.
[In the following review, Fitton asserts that, despite its intricate plot structure, the conclusion of The Choir leaves too many unresolved character issues.]
The publishers make more than the author does of The Choir as a cathedral-city story by a descendant of Anthony Trollope; but the Barchester parallels are fortunately not laboured in this well-plotted novel by his kinswoman. Like Barchester, “Aldminster” (a fictional Gloucester) is a densely populated, closed community in which news spreads fast and ill-temper is infectious, but the overall tone is secular and the cathedral and its choir are seen as cultural and recreational facilities rather than God-serving foundations. The Almighty nowadays doesn't get much of a look in.
As a nice consensus man the present diocesan has some echoes of Bishop Proudie. He prefers to reserve judgment and leave matters undisturbed: “To come out in open opposition to the Dean would be the selfish gratification of personal opinion”, he declares, “and would undermine the Church as a whole.” His wife, however, burdened with house and garden because they feel so ill at ease with servants, is certainly no Mrs Proudie.
The centre stage is occupied by the Dean, a man more in the Grantly than the Arabin mould, who “disliked open defiance in the Close”, and who for all his urbanity is given to occasional “disproportionate fury”. He is a dignitary from the eighteenth century, and matches the architecture of his Deanery: overcivilized, and rightly reckoned by the city to be “too grand for Aldminster”. The confidential patronage lists are reputed to note that “w.h.m.” (wife has money), which attribute keeps him in wine from Berry's and shotguns from Purdey's. Mrs Dean, in Jaeger suit and pearls, has an assured tone of “unmistakable commanding friendliness” that sets the teeth of the entire diocese on edge. We are relieved to learn that this paragon of Deans has sired three absolutely deplorable children.
His Very Reverence is, however, wholly devoted to his cathedral, which is undergoing a thorough and expensive refit under his management. The Dean's zeal for the fabric leads him into jobbery (“stratagems” would be his word) involving a local political boss anxious to open up the Close to the populace. The choir school's best building becomes a pawn in some complicated civic and ecclesiastical manoeuvring, and soon the choir itself is threatened with dissolution in order to pay for a further round of the Dean's costly repairs.
A lollipop recording by the best boy treble solves the financial crisis, and all seems well in the end, although the in-fighting has taken its toll. The old Labour city boss, who is the chorister's grandfather, is out-manoeuvred by both the Dean and younger councillors. The organist, pursued by the Dean's daughter, finds himself paired with a pupil's mother and has to leave with her for a teaching post elsewhere. Divorce and separation, widespread in Aldminster, provide some not particularly ecclesiastical undertones.
The Dean's attitude towards his wife changes from the submissive to the peremptory, but he gets little pleasure from his victory and is glimpsed near the end praying distractedly in a side chapel. Mrs Dean, broken by the rows, maintains a brave face in public but is clearly heading for a nervous breakdown. The atmosphere is more highly charged than the plot warrants, and rather too many emotional loose ends are left after the ecclesiastical dispute has neatly been brought to a conclusion.
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SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. “The Way Quite a Lot of Us Live Now.” Spectator 270, no. 8603 (29 May 1993): 27-8.
[In the following review, Chisholm describes A Spanish Lover as “a wonderfully easy and agreeable read,” noting Trollope's skillful prose and the emotional viability of her characters.]
With her six previous novels of contemporary middle-class English manners and morals, Joanna Trollope has over the last few years established, with striking success, a particular tone and territory. The tone is wry, humorous, sensible, sometimes bracingly sharp; the territory is the village, the country town, the rectory, the cathedral close, the doctor's surgery, the kitchen table and everyday middle-class English family life.
Her books do not try to be intellectually demanding, nor is her prose striking or original, although she writes well; but her observation is precise, her ear for the nuances of social life keen, and her interest in emotional minefields serious. She is, as increasingly large numbers of readers are discovering—two years ago her hardback sales were under 20,000, but sales of her new book are predicted to be over 70,000—a wonderfully easy and agreeable read. Her books are mercifully unlike a Conran, a Collins or a Cooper, with their bright, relentless emphasis on unlikely amounts of sex and money. There is plenty of romance and plenty of shopping in a Trollope novel, but the sex is problematic as often as it is rapturous, and the shopping mostly takes place at Sainsbury's and features dogfood, baked beans and sausages. Money is frequently short. Trollope, in other words, writes about the way quite a lot of us live now.
Women under pressure are always at the centre of her books. Informed by feminism, but not in thrall to it, she gives her heroines like Anna in The Rector's Wife, or Liza, married to a doctor in A Passionate Man, a complex set of emotions as they struggle to establish their own identities within imperfect marriages to men in impossible jobs. Trollope is not doctrinaire, and she is always subtle; her men are often selfish and obtuse, but they are hard-pressed and never monsters. The troubled marriage is one of her specialities, the erosion of love by familiarity, anxiety and exhaustion; and she is outstandingly good at the heaven and hell of children, whether sticky toddlers, vulnerable ten-year-olds or touchy adolescents. Her families are observed with affection, but described without sentimentality; the pain that adult confusion and misbehaviour can inflict on children at any age is not evaded, and happy endings are not guaranteed.
Joanna Trollope's other great skill is her unpredictability; the settings of her books may become familiar, but she knows how to spring a surprise. Many readers of A Village Affair will have been startled by what it turned out to be. In her new novel [A Spanish Lover] she sets up what appears at first to be a fairly obvious tale of how a reserved Englishwoman goes abroad and finds romance. Frances is in her thirties, single, and runs a small travel agency. The most important person in her life as the story begins is her twin sister, Lizzie, who has everything that Frances seems to lack; four children, a desirable country house and a thriving small business in Bath that she runs with her nice husband, Robert. Another Trollope theme is the fragility of happiness and the danger of getting what you want; because then you have everything to lose; and poor Lizzie, who has tried so hard and is only slightly smug, starts to lose her grip as the recession undermines their financial security and her life starts to go wrong, while her sister's takes off into new geographical and emotional landscapes.
This change of territory is a departure for Joanna Trollope too, and a risk. Lizzie's half of the story is written with total confidence; Trollope knows exactly how to describe the pain of having to obey the hateful local bank manager and give up the dream house with the blue and russet and cream kitchen, and the dresser with the drawer where the cat likes to sleep. But when Frances gets to Spain, although there is a most satisfactory false start, and her Spaniard is not a glamorous Don Juan but a slightly overweight, middle-aged, married businessman, her discovery of Andalucia has a touch of the well-researched travelogue about it. In her determination to subvert the clichés about Spain, and holiday romance, Joanna Trollope has tried almost too hard to take Spanish history, landscape and character seriously; but her insight into how Frances feels, and how in the end she is impelled to take the step that will probably end her great love affair, is moving and convincing. Best of all, perhaps, is her account of how Lizzie comes to terms with change, but not before endangering her marriage.
It has been suggested that Joanna Trollope, no less than the blockbuster writers she is beginning to creep up on in the bestseller lists, is peddling a fantasy—a snobbish nostalgia for an old-fashioned, countrified, gentrified England, where people live in villages, not tower blocks, and cook casseroles in the Aga rather than send out for pizzas. In fact, there is plenty of change and decay and mud and litter in her books, and any rural idyll that crops up is quickly undermined; and snobbery, although it features in her books just as it features in English life, is acknowledged, not approved. Her stories are set in a recognisable part of a country struggling to adapt to change, in its institutions and its public and private values, and she tells them with impressive technical skill and a commitment to emotional truth.
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SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Maastricht Romance.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4706 (11 June 1993): 22.
[In the following review, Broughton asserts that A Spanish Lover displays Trollope's keen ability to dissect the “beleaguered middle-class home,” though notes that the work is unsuccessful as a “post-feminist” romance novel.]
Joanna Trollope's new novel [A Spanish Lover] follows the fortunes of Lizzie and Frances, twins in their thirties. Lizzie is firmly rooted in Trollope country: a “large but not boastful” house, a mild-mannered husband, an up-market small business and four blisteringly articulate children. The reader can guess that Lizzie probably reads House and Garden in the bathroom but never quite gets round to the Independent; that she thinks a great deal about cushion covers and fresh herbs; and that she could, without perceptibly missing a beat, rustle up pasta and salad for thirteen if guests dropped by unexpectedly.
Lizzie worries about Frances. Frances is unmarried and doesn't care about soft furnishings. With her sensible shoes and graceless hats she is, in fact, the “plain but promising” romantic heroine: a Jane Eyre for the 1990s. Frances also runs a small business, arranging artlessly whimsical, tasteful holidays for an exclusive breed of clients who like the best of everything in discreet hotels off the beaten track.
One year, Frances, instead of dutifully doing Christmas with Lizzie and the family, flies to Seville to do business with a handsome hotelier, Luis Gomez Moreno. A romance for Maastricht, the novel plays the sexual and economic flowering of Frances in Spain against the steady decline of recession-hit Lizzie. Sun-drenched Andalucian scenery is intercut with grey shots of gloom-drenched Britain, where life is increasingly dominated by bickering, oven-chips and visits to the bank manager.
It is here, as the anatomist of the beleaguered middle-class home, that Trollope is expert: probing weak spots and recording grim changes, as the family life-blood—money—drains away. As a chronicler of superwoman's weariness, as poet of fatigue, Trollope is convincing. Lists, the écriture feminine of the modern mother, form on the inside of Lizzie's eyelids before she is fully awake, and explode feverishly into the narrative:
“Sausages,” she wrote rapidly. “Gold spray-paint, dried chestnuts, things for stockings, cat food, sticking plasters, big jar of mincemeat, second-class stamps, collect dress from cleaners, walnuts.”
With lists she holds things together, and keeps madness at bay. “I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down”, Virginia Woolf noted in her diary, three weeks before lowering herself into the river Ouse. Here, Trollope's sympathies save Lizzie from disaster: this must surely be the first novel to celebrate the “green shoots” of recovery.
As the exponent of the “post-feminist” love story, however, Trollope seriously misses her mark. Can she really think that readers will be fobbed off with guide-book prose if she makes her heroine a travel agent? That the two-dimensional holiday Romeo can be rounded out by the simple addition of a paella-belly and an interest in organic farming? Or that a few upside-down exclamation-marks will make dialogue look more Spanish? (“¡Pepe! ¡Pepe!”)
Joanna Trollope has been quoted in the newspapers recently, using her considerable influence as a bestselling novelist to “rescue” romance from the apparent disdain and neglect of the literary establishment. Mass-market romance does not need to be patronized in this way. It thrives lucratively and exotically on the margins. Threaten it with respectability and it will disappear in a cloud of scented body spray and a flurry of clichés.
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SOURCE: Light, Alison. “Sense and Sensitivity.” New Statesman 6, no. 260 (9 July 1993): 33-4.
[In the following review, Light contrasts A Spanish Lover with Anita Brookner's A Family Romance, criticizing both authors for reducing issues of societal conflict to the level of interpersonal conflict.]
On the surface they couldn't be more different. [Anita] Brookner is melancholy, cosmopolitan, her heroines the denizens of heavily carpeted mansion flats and prosperous London suburbs, well-heeled and well-turned out but ultimately life's losers and its natural solitaries. Trollope, on the other hand, is cheerful and mildly Anglican, her territory the shires and cathedral towns, crowded married lives with boisterous families of growing children, with her middle-aged heroines going in for successful “late flowering”.
Different generations, too. Anita Brookner, the child of Polish parents, grew up in the 1930s and her novels (even when set, like A Family Romance, in the present) return inexorably to the long summer of conservatism (roughly 1930-1956) when life was supposedly simpler and more austere. A good 20 years her junior, Joanna Trollope seasons her tales of the provinces with a strong helping of the contemporary. A Spanish Lover captures, among other things, the aspirations of a couple for whom setting up an art gallery, getting an Aga and Edwardian brass beds are their wildest dreams in Mrs Thatcher's 1980s.
Yet despite these real differences, their writing is of a piece. Though Trollope is more chattily downmarket and has little of the aphoristic formality that won Brookner the Booker prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac, they share an investment in an emotional economy. Respectability and its limits fascinates both; the traumas of the quiet life, and the longings of those comfortable people who feel themselves deprived. For if there is such a thing as the bourgeois psyche, it is as much at home in Shepton Mallett as in Vienna.
Women writers have long been well placed to record what George Eliot called the unhistoric acts woven into the fabric of most people's history: the small change of everyday life—caring for relatives or running a home—that can cost an enormous expenditure of spirit and energy. The novel developed as a place where the middle-class woman could explore her identification with the interior life of private feeling: with what, in fact, being middle class meant. In their emotional struggles, 19th-century heroines test out the limits of their communities. Cramped by social laws, desiring to break free, a Maggie Tulliver or a Jane Eyre learned to reconcile private needs with public demands. Their self-awareness was given such a moral charge that it could make readers forget the need for more sweeping change.
Brookner and Trollope might seem to follow in these footsteps. Like Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym in our own century, they too make women the guardians and the victims of respectability. And they rehearse the inevitable bourgeois question: can you have both passion and position? Such writers set great store by social and emotional order. They relish and fear whatever disrupts its calm surface. This usually means sex, which even in the Cotswolds or in Maida Vale is the great destroyer.
A Family Romance sets up a familiar Brookner opposition between the appeal of the self-seeking life and the virtuous but mousey one. The same polarities, between desire and its repression, sensibility and sense, play themselves out in A Spanish Lover, where the English puritan heroine falls in love with a married Catholic foreigner. You can be sure she won't be allowed to eat her cake and have it. Pleasure has always to be paid for.
Why do readers keep on going back for more? Because the compensation for self-control, as Freud believed, is to think yourself more civilised. Brookner and Trollope offer their readers a training in character as restraining as those 18th-century conduct manuals designed to supplant the aristocracy with a new moral class. Always keep your voice low; never shed a public tear; avoid embarrassment; always be well-groomed. And however much they leaven their advice with self-mockery, they assume their female fans, like their heroines, will want to be ladies. Readers are flattered into thinking themselves rather clever and a bit superior: if they can't be happy and successful, they can at least be sensitive.
The real fear in the heroines' lives is not to be found loveless but tasteless. Caste rather than class feeling animates them. Brookner and Trollope, belonging to different couches of the middle-class, remind us how much the respectable thrive on self-division.
Both are obsessed by money while continuously denying its importance. The materialists are always other people; the vagaries of the vulgar are displayed in order to distance the heroines from them. Trollope's chosen few are definitely not the ones who modernise their cottages with Laura Ashley wallpapers and Marks & Spencer curtains. Rather, they are makeshift bohemians like the rector's wife. They wear trailing skirts with gaily-coloured scarves tied round their waists and live in a muddle of cats and quarry-tiling. Always keen to put down others as the dupes of consumerism, they don't see that their own style is as much a creature of the times.
Like many middle-class children of both left and right, they find their own class endlessly absorbing. They don't bother much with the working classes, though both can manage those tough warm-hearted types who belong to a better, more deferential past. Brookner's “helps” and taxi drivers are the usual spirited Cockneys, while Trollope's village locals never rise above the level of Hodge. Such people, like the upper classes, hardly have an inner life at all.
Yes, this is Cranford and Middlemarch revisited. But what's missing is what took Gaskell and Eliot beyond the boundaries of their own small selves. Their vision of renunciation was in aid, not of being special, but of belonging to the world beyond their windows. That engagement with the unknown—the Manchester poor or the Jewish community of Daniel Deronda—wrenched the plots out of frame and made for violent or unconvincing endings. They took real risks as authors, and as women, in trying to imagine a society in which their needs were tempered not-just by family and friends but by the genuinely unfamiliar.
Brookner and Trollope always play it safe. They have nothing bigger to offer women than themselves. The lonely pleasures of individualism take over where the idealisms of romance and politics fail. It's true that insisting on your individuality is emancipating for those brought up to subordinate their needs. But emotional independence is only a halfway house towards a better kind of dependency. Seeing yourself as special is only the first step toward seeing all others as equally so. Gaskell and Eliot knew there was no such thing as just individuals and their families, but such a thing as a society: that great web of responsibility that connects us all.
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “A Trollope for the 20th Century.” Washington Post, no. 305 (6 October 1993): B2.
[In the following review, Yardley praises Trollope for her strong characterizations and “sensitivity to social nuance” in The Men and the Girls.]
Yes, Joanna Trollope is, as you may well have suspected, “a descendant of 19th-century English novelist Anthony Trollope,” so the dust-wrapper copy for The Men and the Girls informs us. She is also, as you may well have hoped, Trollopian: not perhaps in pure literary fecundity (her career, after all, is still young), but certainly in sensitivity to social nuance and in strength of characterization. If she has a bit of a penchant for the soap-operatic, well, so too did her distant kinsman; she neutralizes it, though, with a touch of the irreverent and by simply being very good.
The Men and the Girls is what Random House calls Trollope's “fifth contemporary novel,” as contrasted to an unspecified number of historical novels she has published, along with “a study of women in the British Empire.” It is the first of her books to be published in the United States; a second, The Spanish Lover, is forthcoming next year, and with any luck others will follow in the fullness of time.
The men of Trollope's title are James and Hugh, both in their early sixties, friends for almost as long as either can remember. The girls are Kate and Julia, both in their mid-thirties; Kate has been living with James for eight years, though she has “staunchly refused to marry him,” while Julia and Hugh are not merely married but the parents of twin boys.
These intergenerational alliances seem happy and solid, but the foundations upon which they have been constructed turn out to be shaky. The process of uncovering these hidden difficulties is accidentally set off when James, having absentmindedly left his eyeglasses at home, knocks an old woman off her bicycle with his car. Her injuries are minor but his sense of guilt is massive. By way of expiation he becomes a persistent visitor at her small lodgings, and soon enough she assumes an important place not merely in his life but in those of all the people to whom he is most intimately connected.
Her name is Beatrice Bachelor. She is “sharp as well as brave and unconventional,” a spinster with a mysterious romantic past and a strong sense of familial loyalty even if those who receive it are undeserving. In the month after the accident her “social horizons had widened dizzily,” not merely because of James's persistent attentions but also because of those of his family and friends.
At first those attentions are visited upon her at her own residence, but soon enough she becomes a regular presence at Richmond Villa, James's eccentric Victorian house in Oxford, where all of this takes place. By the time the various domestic dramas have been resolved, she has been for quite a ride:
The last six months had been the richest in Beatrice's life for many, many years and she had not only revelled in them, she had rejoiced to revel. She had started by being interested and ended by being enamored, of a house, a way of life, a group of people, a man. She had fallen into a luxurious habit of seeking amusement and stimulation and food—for an infatuation, Beatrice told herself firmly—by simply going round to Richmond Villa.
Matters turn out to be not quite so clear-cut as that, but Beatrice is both catalyst and confessor for a small group of interesting and appealing people to whom her arrival is a plain blessing. As the reader can imagine, questions of May-December alliances have much to do with the needs and doubts with which these people are afflicted, but there is far more to Trollope's tale than that.
This is because, like so many other British novelists of the present day, Trollope is especially accomplished at creating and fleshing out secondary characters. In many respects the most engaging person in The Men and the Girls is not any of the characters referred to in the title but Kate's 14-turning-15 daughter, Josephine, called Joss. How Joss responds to her mother's separation from James, and how she finds not merely common ground with Beatrice but encouragement to reconstruct her life, unfold in Trollope's hands as inevitably and pleasingly as the reader could expect.
The Men and the Girls is quietly insistent rather than urgently compelling, recalling in that respect the fiction of Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and other contemporary British novelists. These writers have found modest but ardently loyal readerships in the United States; there is ample reason to believe that Joanna Trollope will do likewise.
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SOURCE: Kendall, Elaine. “Relationships Slide into Generation Gap.” Los Angeles Times (15 October 1993): E4.
[In the following review, Kendall compliments Trollope's “witty” portrayal of modern romantic relationships in The Men and the Girls.]
Though the author is a descendant of Anthony Trollope and has written historical novels, The Men and the Girls is a brisk, thoroughly contemporary story of relationships between a pair of 60ish men and the young women with whom they live.
As the book begins, these connections are beginning to show some signs of wear and tear. The generation gap, hardly noticeable when the couples met, suddenly seems to have widened. Inevitably, the developing situation turns the book into a witty and involving cautionary tale.
James Mallow and his Kate have been together ever since they met in a pub when he spilled a dollop of beer on her shoulder.
Kate was then the single mother of a 6-year-old daughter, and James had been a widower for 20 years. Happy to move into James' house with her child and to devote herself to making him comfortable and happy, Kate has nevertheless stubbornly refused to marry him, a detail that had apparently stopped mattering in the course of time. Her determination to remain legally independent is part of Kate's charm, as individual as her red hair and her Irish heritage.
Her daughter is now a teenager with punk hair and combat boots; James' elderly and irascible uncle is living with them, and as the novel opens, James has just knocked an elderly Oxford spinster off her bicycle while driving in the rain without his spectacles. Kate has been feeling obscurely restless for a while, but the bicycle accident comes as a distinct shock. Has James become—elderly? Is this the shot over the bow, a sign that her tender and hearty lover is turning into Uncle Leonard?
Hugh Hunter, James' friend since school days, is a well-known television commentator. A sought-after bachelor until his 50s, he fell in love with the brisk and capable production assistant on his new program and has enjoyed fatherhood and domesticity ever since. He and Julia are married and the parents of 4-year-old twin boys.
Now, however, he's seen a few omens of his own. The day of his program has been shifted and its time allotment cut. Younger men are not only standing in line behind him, but shoving. Hugh realizes that if he's lucky, he'll wind up hosting a talk show in the provinces. The prospect doesn't delight him, though he does his best to pretend it does.
The action is cross cut, offering alternate visions of James and Kate followed by scenes with Hugh and Julia, a technique that emphasizes the parallels between the two couples. The men meet for occasional private conversations, in which their mutual plight is explored further. As Hugh's career wanes, Julia's flourishes. A part-time journalist and full-time mother, she hires a nanny and devises a television show of her own, a change that adds to the stresses already fraying the marriage.
Kate, who had seemed content to do volunteer work at a battered women's shelter and to help a friend in a restaurant a few days a week, meets a compellingly attractive (and young) man at the restaurant and embarks on an affair with him. Exercising her long-dormant options, she moves out of James' house into a tiny flat near her lover. Her daughter Joss chooses to stay with James, who gradually becomes involved with the neglected mother of Joss' American boyfriend.
Throughout, the dear old spinster, Beatrice Bachelor, becomes a force in the radical alterations taking place in the lives of James, Kate, Joss and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Hugh and Julia Hunter. Beatrice, who had seemed so vulnerable with her belongings scattered in the street and her face splashed with mud, turns from a pitiable character into a role model, but to find out how this and other transformations are wrought, read The Men and the Girls.
The style is altogether different, but the wry gene that made the earlier Trollope's work a delight endures in this novel by a worthy successor.
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SOURCE: Romaine, Elaine. Review of The Men and the Girls, by Joanna Trollope. Belles Lettres 9, no. 3 (spring 1994): 78.
[In the following review, Romaine discusses the theme of freedom versus responsibility and the mirroring of characters to create contrast and depth in The Men and the Girls.]
Old age permits us “to dispense with exaggerated feelings and vain agitations,” wrote Madame de Maintenon in the 18th century. It allows distance, freedom from cultural expectations, even possibly wisdom. In Joanna Trollope's The Men and the Girls, Beatrice Bachelor, “a true Oxford spinster,” is the figure around whom the novel's characters play out their comic agitations. Her age and mere presence transform lives that seemed settled and quite happily dull. Two friends, James and Hugh, who are in their sixties, live with Kate and Julia, respectively, women in their 30s. Kate “has a huge capacity to accept” while Julia plans life by the inch. Enter Beatrice. When James accidently bumps into her with his car and befriends her, Kate begins to notice James's age and her own unfocused life. Kate leaves James to invent a new life; later, Hugh, realizing age has made him unmarketable in his television career, leaves Julia. The narrative seems headed towards tragedy. But Trollope's pacing of witty dialogue and quiet reflection creates a comedy—sometimes dark—of what otherwise might be one more novel about domestic tribulations.
Beatrice's wisdom oversees each antic mishap. She understands the tempting illusions of freedom. We think we are free, she says, when “so little of life is governed by free will.” Kate happens to meet Mark, who turns into a batterer, while Hugh flees to James's house but discovers James's random eccentricity is confining, not freeing. And poor, kind James? He meets Bluey, who promptly falls in love with him. But James—caretaker to Joss, Kate's daughter, his cranky uncle Leonard, and now Hugh, discovers he has become “heart-tired.”
Even with multiple characters that range from the manager of a home for battered women to sullen adolescents and slick television producers, Trollope manages to be nimble and witty. The device of mirroring characters—two men, two adolescents, two older people, and two girls—allows both contrast and depth. At one point, James's house becomes a limbo crowded by those lost between freedom and responsibility: Leonard, two adolescents, Hugh and James, Bluey—and Beatrice who eyes this conflagration with the distance of a comic muse.
“Sharp as well as brave and unconventional,” Beatrice has a center—herself. At almost 70, her solitary life is not characterized by retreat but by a feisty thumbnose at the vagaries of life. And, though childless, Beatrice wisely says of Kate and her adolescent daughter “sometimes it is impossible for two people endeavouring to be similar protagonists to live together.” And the others? Do they escape limbo? They do, but wholly changed.
And wherein lies the comedy? In the behavior of wayward characters, agitated and bravely searching, finally relieved to see a light, any light, no matter how cloudy it might be. All we have, Kate realizes, “is a way ahead even if it's not the one you imagined.”
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SOURCE: Barnett, Victoria J. Review of The Rector's Wife, by Joanna Trollope. Christian Century 112, no. 2 (18 January 1995): 60-3.
[In the following review, Barnett examines the conflict between private life and public image in The Rector's Wife, noting the protagonist's struggle to obtain independence, autonomy, and a sense of personal identity.]
Joanna Trollope's book (and the BBC dramatization shown this past fall on public television) is one of numerous stories about a married woman who rediscovers her identity by escaping her marriage. But any reader who has been inside a parsonage will know that The Rector's Wife is much more than a story about the attractions of adultery when a marriage has reached a dead end. Trollope has written an important novel about a widespread issue: what happens to individuals and their relationships when public expectations conflict with the realities and demands of their private lives.
Some may think that recent changes in the church have eradicated both the image and the role of “minister's wife.” Feminism and other social movements indeed have brought about significant changes (including the presence of rectors' husbands and, for gay and lesbian clergy, their partners). Models for the ministry itself have changed, as various factors have shifted churches' focus away from considering pastors as sole leaders of parishes. Still, as in many other fields, the increase in options doesn't necessarily bring a change in basic attitudes. Ministry remains a demanding and public job, and many parishioners still have strong opinions about the role of both the pastor and spouse.
The dilemma for clergy families is rooted in the tension between two contradictory facets of the ministry. An invisible boundary separates a minister and a congregation. Despite the genuine camaraderie that can develop in a parish, this boundary is seldom crossed. Some distance is necessary between a congregation and the person who leads it, who counsels its members and learns many of their secrets, and who may encounter internal disputes (sometimes serious ones) about the very purpose and direction of that parish's ministry.
At the same time, there are few other professions in which intrusions into the private sphere—late-night phone calls, the interrupted meals, the frequent postponement of “days off”—are so complete. Yet that private space is often invisible and perhaps irrelevant to parishioners.
The rector in The Rector's Wife, Peter Bouverie, has spent his life and defined his ministry according to what other people think, and he expects his family to do the same. The resulting tension is evident from the first page of the book. Gossiping village women fall silent when Anna Bouverie joins them: her unhappy youngest daughter is taunted by her schoolmates.
The rector's family is not treated like other people, yet, even privately, its members must conform to what other people think. Peter does not allow Anna to teach, since his parishioners might object. She spends her days working on small translating jobs, brooding about the family's dismal financial state and doing numerous parish tasks that are taken for granted by her husband and his parishioners.
The turning point comes early in the story, when Peter is passed over for a much hoped-for appointment to the position of archdeacon. When his career hits dead end, it becomes bitterly clear that he has no inner resources or satisfying relationships to fall back on. In his marriage and ministry, Peter has dried up.
Anna, too, is on the verge of either drying up or going mad. As her frustration deepens over Peter's disappointment and the estrangement between them, she decides to change her life. She begins to carve out small spaces of independence from the parish by transferring their daughter to a Catholic school, taking a job at a local supermarket and, finally, seeking the love absent in her marriage with the brother of the new archdeacon.
This final betrayal drives Peter to his death (although, in one of the book's many ironies, he thinks Anna's affair is with someone else). He views all of Anna's independent activities as betrayals, both of him and of her “proper” role as a rector's wife. By trying to sabotage Anna's independence, Peter destroys the last remnants of trust between them.
After Peter's death, Anna comments that an affair with another person is no worse than an affair with duty. Both are acts of faithlessness; both can destroy a marriage. The special poignancy of Trollope's book is that it illustrates the burdens that Peter's understanding of the ministry places not just on Anna but on himself. Their sense of who they are is jeopardized because their identities are constantly being defined by other people. Anna realizes this and fights it. Peter's inability to separate his identity from his position as rector destroys not only the marriage but himself.
Although the Bouveries' story is extreme, their essential predicament is one that many clergy couples can understand. Our special need is not to see ourselves as others see us, but to retain the integrity of that part of our lives that others do not see. The challenge is to integrate these two parts of our lives into a healthy whole. Most of us start out determined not to become stereotypes. But the power of stereotypes is that, even when we think we've moved beyond them, it is difficult to know whether our choices are our own or simply acts of rebellion or conformity. In either case, the stereotype becomes the point of reference.
Stereotypes have to become irrelevant if we are to live our own lives. Trollope's book offers some models for this. Some of the other clergy in the Bouveries' diocese succeed in doing their jobs while retaining some clear-sightedness about their priorities. Anna discovers a number of kindred spirits: women who discard the roles imposed upon them and recreate, with very human means, lives that affirm who they are.
The end of the book is the beginning of this process for Anna. It is a strength of Trollope's story that Anna's final affirmation is not based solely upon the negation of all that has gone before. Just as some of Peter's former parishioners come to see her more fully after his death, Anna, too, begins to understand them and her former situation better. And she achieves some reconciliation with her husband at his grave. Having recaptured a sense of purpose in her own life, Anna can recall the joy which she and Peter occasionally found together, and which even he once must have felt in his faith.
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SOURCE: Potter, Jennifer. Review of The Best of Friends, by Joanna Trollope. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4800 (31 March 1995): 20.
[In the following review, Potter criticizes The Best of Friends for its weak plot and unconvincing characterizations.]
Newly deserted by her priggish, art-dealer husband, Gina Sitchell puts their meticulously restored country-town house on the market. Medieval with late-seventeenth-century additions, it has all the right 1990s accoutrements: elm shelves, waxed flagstones, recessed sockets. But no Aga, tut-tuts a prospective buyer dressed in faintly ridiculous metropolitan black. “We'd have to put one in … I have one in Camden Town. It's my dearest friend.”
This is Joanna Trollope's mild riposte (and one of only four small jokes) to critical opinion that dubs her novels “Aga sagas” and consigns them to the dump-bins of critical success for reasons more sociological than literary. Trollope writes about middle-class families and relationships—“intelligent, ordinary, recognisable families”, smirks the dust-jacket—offering like-minded readers an escape into familiar territory where the shocks are entirely those of recognition.
Her latest, The Best of Friends, extends the character-range into adolescents and the over-seventies in a record-breaking attempt to tie (and sever) as many different sexual and personal knots as possible between three generations of two families. When her marriage breaks up and her fussy, heterosexual husband, Fergus, goes off to London to live with a man, Gina turns for solace to her oldest friends, Laurence and Hilary, who run a small country-house hotel with bee boles in the garden (there is a strong heritage undertow). Seeing the light one night in the hotel kitchen, Gina and Laurence resolve to run off together to France, apparently oblivious to Gina's sixteen-year-old daughter, Gina's mother (straight-talking Vi, whose geriatric sweetheart has just died), Laurence's wife and their three teenage sons. At the last moment, mindful of the havoc they are causing to their families, Laurence rediscovers his essential kindness and chooses to fall back in love with his wife. “‘I can't believe it’, Gina said, her voice choking. ‘I can't believe that two men could do this to me. In the space of three months.’”
She is not the only one whose credulity is stretched. Having opted for the manipulative cliff-hangers of soap-opera, Trollope repeatedly brings her characters to the point of crisis then wrenches the focus elsewhere. Technically, the third-person narrative does not quite enter the minds of different generations. The oldies are too obviously introduced to carry their load of nostalgia for the smells, habits, manners, architecture, flowers and, above all, compassion of earlier times. “We mightn't have had indoor toilets”, says Vi, “but we had each other.” The teenagers rebel with drugs and sex and words like “fuckwit” but nothing too serious; and middle-class Angst has not, it seems, advanced to AIDS.
Trollope fans will nevertheless find much to admire: carefully observed detail, like the daffy Chinese proverbs adorning the walls of Gina's counsellor; the irritations of everyday life; the mid-life shattering of any sense of arrival; the nicely turned phrase (Gina's mother, Vi, smelling of “distress and Red Roses dusting powder”; Gina herself, after Fergus's desertion, running around “like a loose horse in the Grand National”).
Trollope is clearly as comfortable with her world as her readers. Yet buried within the novel is the hint of something else. Laurence remembers, early on, two remarks made in class by a dull teacher: that his pupils would never in their lives encounter anything as truly shocking as the Iliad; and that “almost any great work of art is bound to be subversive”. For writing that down in class, Laurence would later inherit the old teacher's collapsing house and the bee boles. Dare we take this as a statement of future intent from Joanna Trollope herself?
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SOURCE: Hubbard, Kate. “Taste as a Moral Guide.” Spectator 274, no. 8699 (1 April 1995): 36.
[In the following review, Hubbard asserts that The Best of Friends includes “all the hallmarks for which Trollope is loved,” including provincial settings, sympathetic characters, rich detail, and humor.]
In her last novel, A Spanish Lover, Joanna Trollope transported part of the narrative to Spain, and although she brought her usual thoroughness to bear on Andalucian architecture and cuisine, it wasn't quite the same. So it is with a small sigh of relief that, with The Best of Friends, we find ourselves safely back in Gloucestershire, or ‘Whittingbourne’ to be precise. Trollope has moved away from the picture-book English village of her early novels, and though Whittingbourne is built of the requisite golden stone, it also boasts a sports centre, a super-store and gangs of gormless youths. Trollope is casting her net somewhat wider, geographically and socially, but not, since she knows her readers, too wide.
The Best of Friends, Trollope's seventh novel, bears all the hallmarks for which Trollope is so loved: a provincial setting; families in the throes of crisis; sympathetic characters; plenty of cheering warmth and humour and lots of lovely details. The best of friends in question are two couples—Laurence and Hilary Wood, and Fergus and Gina Bedford. The Woods run a small hotel (where Laurence is the chef) and live in a homely, cluttered flat with their three adolescent sons. The Bedfords live in a jewel-like, mediaeval house, impeccably furnished and finished by Fergus, who is a fine-art dealer, with 16-year-old Sophy. The pleasing symmetry of this arrangement is violently shattered when Fergus ups and leaves Gina; an event swiftly followed by Gina and Laurence, who have known each other since their schooldays, falling in love.
Marital crises, of the kind that seem to blow up out of nowhere creating waves of damage, which can never be undone, but may, with luck, be accommodated and contained, show Trollope at her best. She is scrupulous about presenting the many shades to a dilemma and avoiding easy answers. As Laurence puts it, ‘Why was it that if one chose one love, it seemed to invalidate all others, even if you felt them still?’ It must be said that Trollope is more convincing on the demise of love than its blossoming (Gina and Laurence have some painfully coy exchanges) and on middle-aged love, than more youthful or elderly varieties, all of which are present here. But she is adept at capturing the finer nuances of feeling, or the involuntary, telling gesture—as when Hilary, during a crucial conversation with Laurence, wraps her skirt around her knees as ‘a sort of bandage against feeling’.
The focus here is on the havoc wreaked on the lives of the children as their parents lurch in and out of love. Trollope is good on the subject of teenagers. The Woods boys are fairly standard representatives of adolescent youth—sloping about in off-white T-shirts, always awkward and sometimes touching. But the anguish of quiet, sensitive, vegetarian Sophy, as she confronts adult limitations and struggles towards some autonomy, is really finely observed.
Whilst turning a wise and compassionate eye on human failings, Trollope withholds judgment. Nevertheless it's always clear where her sympathies lie (not with Gina). Too well-mannered to underline her characters' shortcomings, she employs taste as a form of moral guide. Gina, neat and glossy-haired, wears leggings, mascara and little, red ballet shoes. Hilary, bespectacled and ruffled of hair, wears sensible, navy blue skirts, has no time for make-up and is obviously going to give Gina a run for her money. Suspiciously tasteful Fergus exchanges his chilly museum of a house in Whittingbourne for a chilly museum in Holland Park, where he lives with Tony (a strictly platonic relationship apparently). It's perfectly obvious that a man who uses a paper knife, fusses about his sofa-covers and only drinks tea from Fortnum and Mason, is sadly deficient.
The Best of Friends is rich in the kind of detailing—of food, clothes, furnishings—at which Trollope excels. One has to wonder why it's quite so satisfying to know that Laurence likes a glass of Chablis, or Bulgarian Red after a long shift, or that the Bedfords have spotted, tie-on ‘Swedish-style’ cushions on their kitchen chairs and spinach and nutmeg ‘designer soup’ in their fridge (no sign of an aga, though). It must be something about the appeal of the familiar, the small thrill of recognition. There should be plenty of thrilling, and the fans are going to be very, very happy.
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SOURCE: Rigby, Sarah. “Making Lemonade.” London Review of Books 17, no. 11 (8 June 1995): 31-2.
[In the following review, Rigby argues that Trollope's writing deserves to be taken more seriously by critical audiences, citing The Best of Friends as an example of how powerfully Trollope handles such themes as “the stifling social hierarchies and the prejudices of provincial communities among old-fashioned institutions.”]
Critics don't think much of Joanna Trollope's novels. They call them inconsequential, petty and suburban. But that's beside the point, because as far as money and fame are concerned she's a phenomenal success. The critical reaction isn't surprising: very popular writers are often dismissed in this way. Trollope, though, has some claim to be taken more seriously.
It's because this is evident and yet thought to be inappropriate that the odd sense of unease which surrounds all discussion of her work has built up. Trollope isn't felt to be of as much significance as she thinks she is. She deals with large, topical, recognisable issues, but she doesn't do so in a very political way—or at least, not in a way which can easily be categorised. A mild version of feminism shapes her writing. It incites identification and is gently provocative, but ultimately it's more comforting than subversive. She evades radical conclusions. Her interest is in the position of a certain type of woman: one who chooses to abandon an income and a career in order to get married and have children, and who later regrets it. ‘Nobody ever gives disappointment the credit of being a prime force behind wayward behaviour,’ one woman thinks in an early novel. ‘But it is. Disappointment is what's the matter with most of us.’
Trollope's characters are caught between the urge to undo recent history and reclaim their independence, and the wish to honour their responsibilities and remain safely within the societies that have cosseted them. But it isn't quite as simple as that, because they are capable of resolving difficult situations in ways that would usually be considered unthinkable: they abandon their children, or they leave their husbands for vague, unspecified reasons, without seeming to care about the effect of it all. There are times when taboo subjects like these are broached openly; when the women decide to put themselves first, because escape seems the only real option. Trollope isn't afraid to pursue this. And she doesn't rush to make judgments.
In fact, it is ironic that the middle-class settings and ostensibly trivial concerns which dominate Trollope's writing and which seem to establish its tone are more often attacked than applauded in the novels. Though they are set in provincial communities among old-fashioned institutions, the stifling social hierarchies and the prejudices they create are seen to be more harmful than quaint. These are the conditions which oppress her characters, and which goad them to reaction.
That isn't to say that the novels aren't rooted in a distinct social class. Trollope's men are professors and vicars, artists, antiquaries and TV producers; her women have usually left their jobs, but are educated and can always find work in an emergency. These people live in elegant, scrupulously decorated houses. They are parents who stay up at night, over bottles of wine, to discuss their children's development. The children are articulate, bright, well-meaning and emotionally stable (though some, inevitably, are especially gifted or artistic, and have temperaments to match). Members of different social classes cross their paths, but only in passing—farmers' daughters employed as nannies; villagers whose poverty is viewed either with pity or distaste; very rich, slightly disdainful Londoners.
Nothing is analysed in these terms. Fluctuations of personal wealth may result in sacrifice; beautiful houses or school fees can be jeopardised. But the characters' assumptions, their vocabulary and ways of speaking don't change. Their society is a backdrop for the exploration of relationships, but it is also a trap, an illusion of stability which crumbles under close inspection.
In Trollope's early novels the pattern is lucid. Frustration, material need or anger prompt the heroine to challenge constraints she hadn't noticed before. New or illicit sex can seem a way of regaining control but it's also problematic, fraught with danger. The heroine enters a period of crisis which she resolves either by sacrificing the safety of the world she knows—this often involves leaving a child—or by accepting the limitations of her situation, and returning to it with a different outlook.
Anna Bouverie, in The Rector's Wife, takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family's needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back … saw … her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.
It goes without saying that Trollope's view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James's, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly … the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them. … It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place.’
That image is significant: Trollope's women are subject to many of the same social and domestic pressures that 19th-century writers had their heroines fight against, and her deliberate use of inherited concepts and language shows that she's aware of that. But her characters are living in a self-imposed anachronism. Their situations have been created by choice. Other options have been—and to an extent still are—open to them, but it takes them a long time to realise it. Kate Bain, of The Men and the Girls, gives up a difficult but self-sufficient existence to move into a large house with a rich man. Later, she gets bored, moves out of her partner's home and sleeps with another, younger man. The initial excitement is illusory. He turns out to be violent and neurotic, and she rebuilds her life alone. She sacrifices her daughter to do so, and then she finds that not having worked for a long time, she is only qualified for difficult, unsatisfying part-time jobs. Liza, in A Passionate Man, stops teaching to devote herself to bringing up her children, and to being a doctor's wife. When she takes it up again, it is part of an attempt to regain her former identity and sense of purpose, and her marriage suffers as she succeeds.
The Best of Friends is more complicated. Its women, Gina Bedford and Hilary Wood, both curbed their professional ambitions when they got married. But they do not spontaneously choose independence or self-confrontation; both have it forced on them as a direct result of other people's actions. Their lives, and those of both their families, are intertangled; everyone has the power to affect what happens. There is no prime instigator, no neat explanatory framework, and no single heroine. Equally, no one involved is fully in control of the situation.
It isn't that what the novel chronicles is extraordinary. In fact, it is relatively undramatic. The narrative centres on the separation of Fergus and Gina Bedford—occasioned because ‘they'd changed and he was being stifled. Suffocated’—and its effect on their 16-year-old daughter Sophy, and on their neighbours, Laurence and Hilary. The families are close. Gina and Laurence are old school friends; each represents ‘the person I talk to about what we want out of life, borrow books from, go to the cinema with’. It is quickly established that they haven't slept together. But when Fergus leaves their relationship becomes more intense. They have sex, decide that they have always been in love; that ‘it was all turbulence and unhappiness and storms and suddenly there's this oasis of calm because we've found the answer.’
It turns out not to be the answer, but in the meantime Laurence tells Hilary and their three sons. Thrown into crisis, Sophy loses her virginity to Laurence's eldest son, George. This causes problems because his brother Gus thinks he's in love with her himself. Fergus, meanwhile, has bought a house with Tony, his business partner, who is infatuated with him. But Fergus isn't gay. Sophy, who blames her mother for her parents' separation, tries to move in with Fergus and Tony, who resents the intrusion. As all this goes on, Vi, Sophy's grandmother, who was forced by the disappearance of her wartime lover to lead a much less conventional, less dependent life than her daughter, loses her soulmate Dan to a heart attack.
After a while The Best of Friends starts to read like a soap opera. It's also as compelling as one. Apart from being so obviously melodramatic, the novel portrays a small, introspective community where everyone knows everyone else and feels free to judge their actions. And because the characters seem familiar and realistic, it doesn't quite matter that the story is sometimes improbable.
There is a lot of voyeurism. People talk about their neighbours, and they watch their movements closely. There are peripheral characters whose function is simply to spectate. Cath Barnett, who is in charge of the housing estate where Vi and Dan both live, openly admits to spying on them, telling Dan that ‘Mrs Sitchell is causing some offence coming over to your flat every morning in her nightclothes and remaining here for an hour.’ Dan is in his eighties, and the comment offends him so much that he falls into a sudden decline. And at the beginning of the book, a couple argue at a party and another guest lays bets on how long their marriage will last. Gina gets so that she can't meet Sophy's schoolfriends without wondering how much they know about her. And quite a lot of the misery caused by the separation of the two couples is to do with what people will think. Divorce is considered by some to be ‘like a knell of doom’. Not everyone thinks like that: Gina is illegitimate, and her mother has never pretended to have been married. But however people react to gossip, there is no getting away from the fact that they will be talked about.
The consciousness of being watched affects what most characters do. They all want to be seen to behave well, and even the most hopeless situations are glossed over in public. Even when they're convinced that they have no future together, Laurence and Hilary stay in the same house and for a long time sleep in the same bed. The reason is simple: they own a hotel and they don't want the staff to know that anything's wrong. Similarly, when Hilary goes to confront Gina about Laurence's affair, she is rigidly polite. ‘Not having done this before, I don't know how one proceeds,’ she says. ‘I don't know the form.’
Gossip and speculation play a big part in the novel, but Trollope is not an overtly moral or didactic writer, and what people think depends largely on who they are, and on how old they are. An old man sees Sophy as a victim of her parents' selfishness, a ‘poor, stricken girl’, but Gina tells Laurence that, though the children may be temporarily unhappy, ‘they'd hate us even more later if we said you'd only stayed … for their sakes.’ Everyone goes through phases of feeling responsible for the others' distress, but they also try to justify their actions according to their own sense of morality. Gina decides that her relationship with Laurence has failed simply because it's immoral, and George's mother tells him that he has taken advantage of Sophy: that she's vulnerable, and in any case too young for him. But Sophy herself sees sex as quite inconsequential; ‘she had quite liked it, to her surprise.’ She refuses to feel bound to George, whom she had chosen simply because ‘she had wanted someone in her power that afternoon.’
Yet characters sometimes change their minds about what they think, and what they've done. When Laurence leaves Gina, and her plans to leave England with him are overturned, she starts to think about Sophy, who had refused to go with her, and about her mother, and about the effect her leaving would have had on them. And Laurence goes back to his wife because he decides that their marriage doesn't have to be over. ‘I'll never be tired of you,’ he tells Gina, ‘but you aren't where I belong.’ Fergus, who is in a roughly parallel position, has just as much dignity, though he states adamantly and repeatedly that he has no regrets. But where people haven't thought rationally about their situation, they come to wish that they hadn't been so impulsive, and for Trollope that's quite new. In many of her early novels, regret or possible alternatives aren't really an issue.
But then Gina is unlike Trollope's previous heroines. Like them, she is forced to a crisis of identity, but she is slow to recognise it. She is bound up in a closed community, and not farsighted enough to want to change her life. She comes to freedom reluctantly, not wanting to be independent. At first she attempts merely to replace one man with another. She goes to counselling sessions, and comes to depend on the therapist, who is blithe and encouraging and quotes things at her like, ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak knits up the o'erwrought heart and bids it break.’ Gina tries to act on her advice, but in the end it doesn't work. Trollope is very good on the ludicrous side of all this. There's a superb description of a young man in the waiting-room, ‘staring furiously’ and swearing at a helpful little card which says: ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
‘I don't understand you,’ Vi tells her daughter, at one point. ‘Sometimes you seem to me like someone I've never met before.’ No one personality or relationship in the novel ever seems fixed or completely stable. Despite that fluidity, The Best of Friends appears oblivious to many of the ideas which pervade contemporary novels. Trollope doesn't worry about the novel form, or about the drawbacks of omniscient narration. She clearly states exactly what each character (including, at one point, the dog) thinks and feels. Their reactions to each new event, and their emotional vacillations, are explained. The problems of individuals are always articulated, justifying their decisions. It's impossible to feel that Fergus is brutish and insensitive when he argues with Sophy, because we are explicitly told that he secretly thinks she's right. We are encouraged to empathise with everyone; to concentrate on each in turn; to watch them battling through the often self-created chaos of their lives; and yet to feel for them. Dialogue cuts insistently into the narrative, but it's stilted and anxious. This is very much the way soap opera works, and the technique feels odd and slightly misplaced in a novel. Yet as in soap opera, it's sometimes peculiarly effective.
The novel's conclusions are ambivalent. Situations are set up but are then compromised, or left partially unresolved. Wealth, education, upbringing and gender, and the assumptions they create, determine characters' fate, the decisions they make, and the emotional effects of their actions. People make small moves towards freedom, but they do and think nothing that will really place them outside their own societies, or will alter dominant ideas. Those who want to escape do not do so literally. They face up to their problems, and see their failings, their successes and the implications of their actions clearly. But they still remain embedded in the situation, and the only way out they can see is emotional or intellectual—a poor, but appropriate, substitute for the flight they dream of.
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SOURCE: Sexton, David. “Down on the Farm.” Spectator 276, no. 8755 (4 May 1996): 29-30.
[In the following review, Sexton lauds Trollope's treatment of the themes of love and loss through death, separation, and divorce in Next of Kin, asserting that Trollope possesses “the true novelist's gift of being able to involve the reader's fantasy.”]
At his wife's funeral, Robin Meredith was asked by a woman in a paisley headscarf, whom he didn't immediately recognise, if he wasn't thankful to know that Caro was now safe with Jesus.
Nobody who has read Joanna Trollope would have any difficulty in guessing the author of the opening sentence of Next of Kin, so effectively has she created her own fictional world. It's all there immediately, rather like the old joke about the one-line story which contains all the essential themes (‘Fuck me, said the Bishop …’)
Already there is love and loss: Trollope always writes about either death or the preview of death that is separation and divorce. There is religion, or rather its pharisaical impersonation. There is that brisk placing via props and accessories. There is, too, a rapid intimation of the social pressure to conform from those around us, which fails to recognise our inward hurts or to answer our real needs. Plain though it seems, it is a skillful sentence, which almost instantly creates a reaction of sympathy and frustration.
Joanna Trollope can perhaps best be seen as the English riposte to Anne Tyler. Tyler explores the American dream of always being able to move on, to leave the mistakes and impedimenta of the past behind and start again at any time. Trollope, on the other hand, works with the English habit of taking what you're given, settling for what you've got, narrowing life down, never opening it out.
Trollope and Tyler, though, have in common the true novelist's gift of being able to involve the reader's fantasy. Reading them both, you catch yourself wanting things to be otherwise, for reconciliations to become possible, for deaths not to have been deaths. Technically, Trollope is far more adept than such rivals in the bestseller lists as Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer.
The Aga, though, has obviously begun to rankle. Trollope takes a cross little sideswipe here at her rivals, ridiculing
a pretty-looking novel, with a white shiny cover showing a bright water-colour of an idealised country kitchen with the door open to a garden beyond and spires of delphiniums and a beehive,
picked up by one of her characters.
The country world of the book bore no resemblance to anything Lyndsay had ever encountered in country life …
In Next of Kin there are no Agas. The baking gets done in anonymous ‘cookers’. Agas have to be inferred. There is, however, a significant fridge—a Westinghouse, ‘this huge, double-doored American thing, big as a wardrobe’.
Two generations of Merediths farm near the River Dean. One son, Joe, works with his parents, Harry and Dilys, on the farm where he grew up. The other, Robin, has set himself up as a dairy farmer near by. In this world, people are
the farming children of farming parents; for most of them the decision to devote themselves to the land had scarcely been a decision at all but rather an acceptance of the preordained path of things.
Trollope is determined to de-romanticise farming, stressing the Merediths' debts, their harassment by bureaucracies and their ceaseless labour. Cold Comfort Farm is never far away. Robin gives a big speech on the subject:
You begin to think whatever you do is likely to go wrong, you decide to spray or not to spray and then the weather turns and all your time and money is wasted. You feel fate's against you. You feel the land is fate.
Nonetheless, the response of most readers is going to be one the genre perpetually invites: that I should have such problems!
Into this settled English world has come an American disturbance. Caro, the wife who has died of a brain tumour before the novel begins, could almost be an Anne Tyler character who has been translated into the wrong fictional world. The daughter of Californian vagabonds, she's a dreamer. Recuperating in England after a broken romance and an infection that has left her infertile, she becomes Robin's wife. They have an adopted daughter but she continues to brandish her expired return ticket at him. The imported fridge is an anniversary present, not to mention a giant symbol.
Robin's brother Joe has also fallen in love with Caro.
Even later, after she and Robin were married, she had retained a special quality for Joe, a reminder that there were places where life was different to this, where possibility was in the air, like oxygen.
After Caro's death, the whole family begins to fall apart. Robin loses interest in life. Joe, despairing, commits suicide. Into this sorry mess steps an angel: Zoe. A studenty friend of the adopted daughter, she's an implausible marvel, a free spirit, always giving, never taking. She becomes Robin's lover from the bigness of her heart and makes a man of him again, while seeing off the small-minded gossips of the village.
It is Zoe's task also to give gnomic expression to Trollope's truths about life. Facing up to Joe's shotgun suicide, she says:
This is bad. … This is so bad. … Death is violent. … There must be a moment of dying when it is for everyone, even for people who just die in their sleep. But this is the worst.
To Robin, she delivers this wise counsel:
You don't want to think about what people think. What they think is their problem. We aren't responsible for other people's hang ups.
Soon the other characters start practising this curious blend of therapy-speak and Ecclesiastes too. ‘There isn't permanence anywhere’, concludes Robin sagely.
Trollope, being able to dramatise well enough, doesn't need to permit herself so many of these little sermons and opinions. Still, they must be gratifying to deliver. Through Zoe, for example, Trollope lets fly a little tirade of rural revanchism. With her new experience of the farming life, Zoe scorns the people she is working with on an advertising shoot back in London:
I bet, Zoe thought, tilting the reflector so that a warm glow lit the girls' faces from underneath, I bet none of this lot have ever touched a cow. I bet they don't think about cows. I bet they just put milk in their coffee and never think about where it came from, about how cows live, who looks after them. I'd like a cow to walk in now. I'd like her to come straight in and just stand there and see what they'd do, see if the cow made them look stupid. The cow wouldn't look stupid, she'd just go on being a cow—
No doubt in the inevitable forthcoming television adaptation such a scene could be arranged. With the right cow, hardly anything more would be necessary really—just that and the fridge.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2154
SOURCE: Trollope, Joanna, and David Finkle. “Joanna Trollope: Family Plots with Untidy Endings.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 5 (3 February 1997): 80-1.
[In the following interview, Trollope discusses her career, the reasons why she writes under a pseudonym, and the themes of change and disappointment in her novels.]
A journalist invited to visit Joanna Trollope in her grey-stone, peak-roofed home in Coln St. Aldwyns, Gloucestershire immediately sees the vitality and matter-of-fact charm that define her sharply nuanced and witty portraits of English middle-class life. Although Trollope doesn't usually allow reporters into her home, she has broken her rule for PW, greeting us as she would a long-awaited weekend guest.
Tall, blonde, riding-crop-thin and dressed English country casual, Trollope ushers us into a capacious study where two upholstered, high-backed chairs sit perpendicular to a welcoming fireplace. She's already launched—as so many middle- and upper-class Britons are regularly compelled to do—into some form of an apology.
“I hope you understand my reluctance to invite you here,” she says as she and her playwright husband Ian Curteis see to our trenchcoat and scarf, “but it has to do with English journalists. They know everything there is to know about me and so they only come here to look at the decor and go away and say something nasty. I thought that if I'd decided I could no longer have them, I had to extend that to all journalists. It's to do with class, of course. They want to know whether I have everything, and then they criticize it.”
Sitting at that fireplace only minutes away from Curteis's cheerful arrival with tea and strips of carrot cake, one wonders what there is to find wrong with this perfectly agreeable room—idyllic for any writer, actually, in its just-this-side-of-cluttered mix of furniture and bric-a-brac. Trollope, who's all angles in her chair, explains this is Curteis's room. Pointing more or less directly above her, in a voice that's both chipper and no-nonsense as well as paced at something of a gallop, perhaps to match the horse-country setting, she says, “I work in a small room up there.”
Trollope's sixth novel, A Spanish Lover, is just out from Random House on these shores. It's already three books old in England, a publishing pattern—“bizarre” is Trollope's word—partially dictated by the successful American television airings last year and the year before that of her earlier novels, The Choir and The Rector's Wife, both of which were published here by Random House in 1995. “It isn't hard to remember them,” she says of her Rural Domestic narratives, “Of course, I remember the storyline—this is not Proust,” she comments. “Readers are always writing me about all my books. I have to say I have the nicest readers in the world.”
A Spanish Lover concerns the changing fortunes of 39-year-old twin sisters Lizzie and Frances. The first has married and started a successful business with her husband Robert; the second runs a travel agency but has declined to marry. “You may remember in The Men and the Girls—the novel before A Spanish Lover—there were little boy twins,” Trollope says. “I'm interested in this business of twins, of twinship, particularly when it's women. Sisters don't leave sisterhood alone. There are competitivenesses. There is the twitch upon the thread. They feel each other's pulse.”
Pulse rates in A Spanish Lover quicken and slow as the 1980s run out on Robert and Lizzie, forcing them to downscale, just as Frances meets a married Spaniard called Luis with whom she falls in love and by whom she contrives to have a baby he has made clear he doesn't want. This scheme is also an outgrowth of another of Trollope's writerly impulses. “I like looking at clichés to see if they hold good or not. What's more cliché than the myth of the holiday romance? What's more cliché than the woman from the North being emotionally unlocked by the man from the South?”
ENDINGS IN A MINOR KEY
As with all of what Trollope calls her “JTs” (to distinguish her contemporary novels from historicals she began to write in the late '70s under the name Caroline Harvey) the ending of A Spanish Lover is calculatedly unresolved. Although Luis accepts his new son, it's at the cost of his love for Francis. The plangent minor chord coda is typical of Trollope's works—reminiscent, for instance, of the fade-out in The Men and the Girls, where Kate, having left her husband James, a man much older than she, returns to offer a reconciliation just a few days too late. Trollope insists on ambivalent endings that don't “patronize the readers. If I tidied up the endings, they'd fall flat. As a reader I don't like having my mind read.” She simply wants to present her contemporary figures as objectively as possible in all their familial dilemmas. “I'm not going to judge them,” she says. “It all comes from a Philip Toynbee quote I have on the wall upstairs—‘The definition of moral progress is the realization that other human beings are fully as human as oneself.’”
A speech in The Men and the Girls goes some way towards summarizing her fictive interests. In it, James, the older husband, says, “When things change, you simply have to learn to adapt to them, don't you? And I suppose, if you're lucky, you might learn to like the change, or at least get perfectly used to it.” Trollope explains: “Life is a series of changes. That's the human condition. If you stop changing, that's when a certain fossilization begins. You pull in your horns. It's a recipe for a diminishing life. There's a Sylvia Townsend Warner letter about life being a series of losses of homes. The first home is the womb, isn't it.”
Trollope's fiction is also imbued with disappointment. It afflicts the dramatic personae of just about every one of the JTs, which to date include, in order of their composing, The Choir,A Village Affair,A Passionate Man,The Rector's Wife,The Men and the Girls,A Spanish Lover,The Best of Friends,Next of Kin and Faith, a short paperback original that's part of the Bloomsbury Quid series. About her dedication to parsing the fine points of setback, she says, “I have known considerable disappointment, and I think disappointment is tremendously underestimated. It's thought of as a minor incident in a life, but it isn't minor. It's a very necessary part of life. The darkness of life is crucial. It has to be harnessed. One of the good things about getting older is that one fears [disappointment] less.”
Born in Gloucestershire in 1943, Trollope had a father who was a Royal Engineer and who, it being wartime, “begat me and disappeared” for the duration of WWII. She spent much of her childhood with her brother and sister in Surrey with her mother's parents. Her grandfather was a country parson whose type, Trollope says, is “now as dead as the dinosaur.” Her grandmother, as Trollope sees it, “had no outlet for her fantastic talents”—and therefore partly inspired the spirited protagonist of The Rector's Wife. Her mother kept an anthology—a loose-leaf booklet—of her favorite writing, and Trollope's time was spent being read aloud to and reading on her own. “I'm sure it was that upbringing that hooked me on words. People who know the wonder of words know it early, don't they?”
THE OTHER TROLLOPE
Although she was raised a Trollope, she merrily confesses that her often-misreported relationship to Anthony, the man to whom she refers as “the real Trollope” “is very disappointing. I'm of the same family but not his branch. We're from the trade side that left Lincolnshire early in the 19th century to come to London. The grand family is always terrified I'm going to claim closer kinship. I'm really some remote kind of cousin. But I have to say I do admire him astoundingly. What I like most about him is his benevolence. He really likes humanity. I think great writers do.”
With so many influences acting on her, Trollope nonetheless took her time admitting to herself and the rest of the world that she was a writer. Her first novel remains unpublished and “is upstairs under lock and key so the children don't find it.” (Trollope has two daughters from a previous marriage and two step-sons). More than a decade after graduating from Oxford, having put in time as a civil servant and a teacher, she published her first Caroline Harvey novel in 1978.
“We haven't tried Miss Harvey on America,” Trollope says about volumes called Legacy of Love,Second Legacy,Parson Harding's Daughter and Steps of the Sun. Trollope imagines Caroline Harvey as quite distinct from herself. “I see her as given to Anita Brookner cardigans and perhaps with a cat. But it's all silly. It's me.” Nevertheless, there is a wide disparity between the two kinds of novels to which she's devoted her time. For Trollope, Caroline Harvey is “less satisfying to write. It's not as rich and as deep. I suppose I know I'm dealing with a certain kind of reality, but it isn't the deepest kind.”
Nevertheless, it wasn't a simple matter for the CHs to become JTs. “I felt like a vehicle up a cul-de-sac without a reverse gear,” Trollope says. “It was Ian who gave me the idea during one of our endless discussions over dinner. His exact words were, ‘It's time you went to Sainsbury’ [the large British supermarket chain]. I was terrified. I thought, ‘You'd hidden behind pre-Freudian psychology for so long.’ Ian got me out of that, too. He said, ‘Why not choose a social problem you don't know anything about?’ I'd sat next to a dean at a lunch some months before and he'd said something about possibly having to close down the choir. This little nugget went down into this useful creative compost.” And became The Choir, the first JT and a comprehensive fictional study of a town caught up in the religious and political ramifications of putting an end to its boys' choir. And that put Trollope on the literary map. Today, she says with a certain amount of pleasure, there may not be “a day when there isn't a letter from a reader in the post—some of them addressed only ‘Joanna Trollope, Gloucestershire, England.’”
Trollope continues to write as both Caroline Harvey and herself. In fact, the next CH—The Brass Dolphin—is due out in England in the spring and for the first time will have an up-in-the-air ending. “Anymore the suggestion of a happy ending fidgets me,” she declares. She delivers the manuscript of the next JT this summer. She knows the title and where she's going with it but won't give any other details.
Of her writing habits, Trollope will only say that she matches, quite by coincidence, Anthony Trollope's 1000 words-per-hour rate when she's on a roll, which she usually is early in the day, and she always writes the first chapters and then the ending before filling in the middle. “I work office hours,” she reports, “but the creative bit is in the morning. It's a long morning. I write in long-hand very fast. But I have to say that the administration of a writer's life takes much more time than it ought.”
Once Trollope has written a book—on the right-hand side of the foolscap so she can tweak on the left-hand side—she gives the manuscript to a friend who puts it on disk. That's when she can get objective and become “ruthless.” She says, “I require editing. I don't think there's a manuscript in the world that doesn't need editing. The trouble begins when you get too prima donna-ish.” She's edited in England by Bloomsbury head Liz Calder and in America by Random House's Suzanne Porter, although Porter generally only changes the occasional Briticism. Trollope also switched agents when Lizzie Grossman at Sterling Lord Literistic moved to Oregon, and Pat Kavanaugh at Peters Fraser & Dunlop, the English agency, thought a British author being handled from Portland didn't make a great deal of sense. Kavanaugh's suggestion for a replacement was Joy Harris of Lantz Harris Literary Agency, and Trollope couldn't be happier—“I think she's wonderful.” The Best of Friends is promised to Random House but Next of Kin isn't and Trollope is uncertain if RH will remain her American publisher. “I don't want to make too much of this, but I'm considering A Spanish Lover a make-or-break book.”
The fire in Curteis's study is still blazing. A late English afternoon has set in. Trollope still talks a country-mile-a-minute. “To be a great writer, or even good,” she says, patently meaning to have it understood that she places herself in the latter category, “you have to have a real sympathy, a tolerance, for the human condition. It isn't much slaying dragons. It's bearing things.”
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SOURCE: Scofield, Sandra. “Twins Coping with the Changes in Their Lives.” Chicago Tribune Books, no. 54 (23 February 1997): section 14, p. 3.
[In the following review, Scofield notes that A Spanish Lover is obviously targeted towards a more commercial audience than Trollope's previous works, but argues that the author succeeds in creating “an entertaining, cosmopolitan story that gives ‘women's fiction’ a fresh standard of intelligence.”]
A best-selling author at home in England, Joanna Trollope (The Choir,The Rector's Wife) has charmed Americans with her gentle, wry novels of the provincial English middle class. In her new book, she takes a sharp left into more commercial territory and demonstrates that the English have yuppies too. The result is an entertaining, cosmopolitan story that gives “women's fiction” a fresh standard of intelligence.
Lizzie and Frances are middle-age twins whose lives change dramatically over the course of an eventful year. Their relationship is the core of the book, because, as their mother, Barbara, said when they were born, if you are a twin “it stunts your relationships with anyone else, because you can't ever be quite free of the other person.” A Spanish Lover is a test of that hypothesis, as each twin discovers new aspects of herself and finds that the old way of relating no longer works.
Lizzie is the vivacious, do-it-all twin with a complicated and demanding life centered on her family—handsome husband Robert and four delightfully eccentric children—and their business, a charming gallery and antique shop in Bath. Trollope is at her best in domestic scenes that mix up kids, meals, chores and relatives in an almost unbearable pressure on Lizzie, while convincing us that she would have it no other way. What better demonstration than Christmas, at which the novel opens? Lizzie not only has all the preparations to make, she is the appointed worrier about her Mum and Dad and her soul mate, Frances. Awake at 5 to launch the day, she is aghast to hear that Frances isn't coming for Christmas. She's on her way to Spain, and the story of the twins' diverging personal growth is launched.
Spain, of course, is the exotic other world we crave in romantic fiction, the place that seems to hold “such a natural life, so uncontrived, so properly concerned with the business of actual living.” Frances owns a small travel agency that specializes in intimate trips to Italy, and she is interested in expanding to Spain. The Christmas trip is to visit the guesthouses of the Gomez Morenos family.
In Seville, Frances finds herself fobbed off in a third-class hotel, hosted—if you can call it that—by the son, Jose, instead of the father, Luis. She tries to save the day with sightseeing, with mixed results. This chapter reads quite like a tourist guide, and it's no surprise that Frances turns right around for home. But subsequent chapters, intertwined with Lizzie's life in Bath, immerse Frances in a glorious love affair with Luis that awakens in her a “quiet power” and sets her on new business and romantic paths.
Meanwhile, Lizzie's life is much more complicated and disturbing. The business is in trouble, and to keep from losing everything, Lizzie and Robert must make huge adjustments. For one thing Lizzie has to take a job as a secretary in a snooty girls school. Just when Lizzie is at her lowest, she learns that her twin sister is madly in love and that (here is the hardest part) love is making Frances feel quite independent. Suddenly Lizzie is sunk in a self-centered depression remarkable for its sheer jealousy of Frances and for Lizzie's unwillingness to let go of her old, superior status. One way Trollope saves this novel from triviality is her depiction of the petty side of Lizzie, aspects of which strain her marriage and make the reader want to shake her.
Several subplots keep the whole thing bouncing. The parents, Barbara and William, have an unusual relationship, which includes William's long-time lover, Juliet, a potter who is a confidante of the twins'. As Frances blossoms in her love of Luis, she discovers the limits a married Spanish Catholic puts on an affair. Luis is, after all, a bit stuffy and arrogant, and his son is spoiled and disapproving. The way Frances resolves the affair for herself is only vaguely plausible, and most definitely not feminist, but certainly romantic. The plot is kept afloat by Trollope's eye for domestic and foreign detail, her sparkling dialogue, the quick pace and a sense that everyone will end up better off than they were. All in all, A Spanish Lover is a delightful confection.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663
SOURCE: Harris, Michael. “Comedy and Romance as a Happy Couple.” Los Angeles Times (3 March 1997): E3.
[In the following review, Harris offers a mixed assessment of Trollope's combination of romance and domestic comedy in A Spanish Lover.]
The cliché about the English is that they are good at compromising, at muddling through. This may or may not be true in general, but Joanna Trollope's A Spanish Lover suggests that it has some relevance to literature. In most American novelists' hands, the romance and the domestic comedy are separate genres, even antagonistic ones; but Trollope manages to combine them.
She does this by having twin sisters follow divergent paths. Lizzie Middleton has a husband, four children, a thriving art gallery business in Bath and a splendid 18th century house, the Grange. She believes in “being fulfilled. Using all the capacities you have, emotional, physical, mental. Filling yourself up.” And by this standard, she seems an unqualified success.
Frances Shore, in contrast, seems to have failed. In her late 30s, she is still single. Reticent and dreamy, she has drifted from one makeshift job or relationship to another. Her mother, Barbara, an outspoken feminist who once abandoned her family for 10 months to join the hippie scene in Marrakesh, pronounces: “Frances will never come to anything.”
Trollope, who has written several other contemporary novels (The Choir,The Rector's Wife) as well as historical fiction, begins this book with a vision of almost Dickensian coziness. It's Christmas. A tired but triumphant Lizzie is filling herself to the brim despite her parents' quarreling and the demands of the children, each sharply and humorously individualized. Frances is expected to arrive soon, as she does every year.
Then comes a shock. Frances isn't coming. Instead, she is flying to Seville, Spain, to dicker with a hotel owner about tours she hopes to book for her fledgling London travel agency, Shore to Shore.
Lizzie reacts with a vehemence that surprises even herself. Frances hasn't just deserted the family at a traditional time of gathering; she has gone AWOL from her role in the family—that of the waif who makes everyone else feel secure.
When Frances comes back glowing, having fallen in love with the Spanish hotel magnate, Luis Gomez Moreno, who is Catholic and permanently, if unhappily, married, Lizzie's concern turns to consternation.
An economic downturn hurts business at the gallery, forcing the Middletons to sell the Grange and Lizzie to accept a low-paying job as a school secretary. She and her husband, Rob, snap at each other. What Lizzie fails to acknowledge, though is that her real problem is a raging envy of her sister.
The repercussions spread wider. The twins' father, William, has carried on a 25-year affair with a bohemian potter, Juliet Jones. A lovable ditherer, he has managed to avoid having to choose between women, just as Juliet has managed to sidestep domesticity.
All these arrangements begin to seem tawdry and fragile in the light of Frances' newfound decisiveness. The final blow comes when Frances, bent on following “where the light beckons,” has Luis' baby. Over his furious objections. In Spain.
At the mountain posada in Andalucia where Frances and Luis first become lovers, she notes that the hotel needs to install deck chairs “in which to read fat novels … as necessary to a certain type of English tourists as marmalade for breakfast.”
A Spanish Lover is just such a novel. Its fatness—its leisurely pace, its accumulation of scenic and social and psychological detail, its slices of dialogue as crisp as cucumber sandwiches—isn't the kind to bloat deck chair readers unduly. It will just fill them up.
The romance, in the end, isn't as successful as the comedy, largely because Trollope can't make Luis, a bundle of stock Iberian charm and inhibitions, as real as those Middleton children. The story closes with a bit of a thud. Still, this is sophisticated entertainment of a sort we in this country seldom get a chance to sample.
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SOURCE: Foster, Aisling. “The Stepmother's Story.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4955 (20 March 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Foster comments that Other People's Children marks another stage in Trollope's “evolution from escapist fiction into realism.”]
Decorum is the backbone of Joanna Trollope's fiction. Her very English, middle-class characters live ordinary, well-meaning lives, until things begin to go wrong. Then, like the excellent Aga cooker with which these sagas are too often associated, the same solid individuals reserve the capacity to hurt and even scar the unwary. The ability to open the lid on pain raises Trollope's stories above the usual flush of heart-and-flower fiction. Indeed, with each one she publishes, the mood seems to darken. Her previous novel dealt with a suicide in the bleakly realized world of modern farming; this one digs into the “random and preoccupied nature of family life” and the trauma of second marriages. The mess which split-ups and regroupings impose, particularly on stepmothers and children, makes uncomfortable reading. And providing scant sexual ecstasy and no cosy answers, except a hope of equilibrium and compromise, Other People's Children marks a further stage in Joanna Trollope's evolution from escapist fiction into realism.
Her thesis is that “no woman in her right mind actually wants to be a stepmother”. It is a role made more difficult by literature and fable. None the less, as the book points out, by the year 2010 “there'll be more stepfamilies than birthfamilies”, and more and more women will find themselves stepping into the part. The story begins with the marriage of Josie and Matthew. She is a schoolteacher who has left her husband (an architect with two adult children from an earlier marriage) and brings along their young son, Rufus. Her new husband, a deputy headmaster, has divorced Nadine after seventeen years of “living in the domestic equivalent of a permanent air raid”. His three children carry their mother's bitter resentment into their rearranged ménage, proving stepchildren to be “just as cruel as stepmothers are supposed to be”. Meanwhile, Josie's ex-husband has found suitable replacement wife and stepmother for Rufus, but his plans to remarry are continually undermined by the demands of a possessive, grown-up daughter.
The whole effect has the fascination of war. Trollope moves the story between battlefronts like a latter-day Clausewitz, allowing all the protagonists to reflect their view of the action, their reasons for taking up arms and their rationalization of strategy. Covering so many different standpoints means that the characterization is a little thin; but equally, the wide scope broadens sympathy and understanding. Some individuals, like Josie and her little boy, emerge as stoic heroes of the drama. Others—particularly the men—remain in the shadows of the ordinary ranks, determined to keep their heads down until a ceasefire is called.
Most interesting are the warmongers: the unforgiving Nadine, overbearing mother, bad cook, women's activist, who has always “hunted stereotypes down like sewer rats”. She does not mourn the loss of a husband, but hates living alone and despises her nest-building replacement; her unfortunate children, torn between responsibility to her and a desire to get on with their lives, are recognizable for their own kinds of adolescent solipsism. Other characters are allowed to add their reactions: members of the extended family, watching the action from the sidelines, are hurt by the fall-out; some disinterested individuals, like so many war correspondents, comment on the wider implications. And so much complexity, written in Trollope's economical style, carries all the weight and compulsion of sagas from ancient times.
At one point, a wise old man muses on the poor image of second wives in fairy tales. When he suggests they are seen “as a challenge to the myth of the happy family”, he raises the question of how much longer such myths will survive. Joanna Trollope seems determined to drag her very popular fiction into the new millennium. And with novels like this one, where happiness lies in choosing fabric for a child's bedroom curtains and passion comes in the form of uncontrollable anger, this author's genre, usually dismissed as mere “women's fiction”, may end up being read as the social history of our age.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1269
SOURCE: Rogers, Byron. “The Importance of Being Parsley.” Spectator 280, no. 8851 (28 March 1998): 29.
[In the following review, Rogers argues that, despite its engaging thesis, the impact of Other People's Children is lessened by the novel's weak plot and Trollope's unusual emphasis on cooking and kitchens as a measure of character.]
Behind this book [Other People's Children] is a Good Idea. Nothing wrong with that: other novels have been successfully based on a writer's discovery of a Good Idea, like the dramatic potential of slavery or the effect of further education on the Victorian rural poor. It is just that at some point you do need to become more interested in the characters, and in what happens to them, than in the Good Idea. That should fall away like the armature around a Saturn Five. And here it doesn't.
Joanna Trollope's Good Idea is the prediction that by the year 2010 there will be more step-families in Britain than families of the other sort, as presumably we shall have to call them. Miss Trollope's publicists call them ‘birth-families’, a construction which for some reason reminds me of Himmler and his interest in eugenics. So out go stepmothers and stepfathers as the reliable villains they were in fiction from fairy tales to Dickens. They will apparently be the norm, and part of a network of relationships, of stepchildren, ex-spouses and new ones, more complicated than a Habsburg family tree.
This, of course, is good news for jobbing builders, but think how much more so it is for novelists. With the exception of war or a snow-bound hotel there can be no quicker way of assembling a large and disparate cast, or of exploiting its tensions. The new-family Britain will be the equivalent to novelists of the Oklahoma land rush, and already way out in front is Joanna Trollope.
First there is Matthew, who is divorced from Nadine and already has three children when he marries Josie, who has been married to Tom and has one child. Tom was a widower when she married him, with two grown-up children. Enter Elizabeth Brown, unmarried and a civil servant, who takes up with Tom. She has a father, an antiquarian bookseller, with a tom-cat called Basil who plays little part in the merry-go-round, being the only member of the cast to have been neutered.
Nadine resents the new wife, and gets her children to resent both the new wife and their new stepbrother. Tom's grown-up daughter, who has been dumped by Neil who doesn't appear, resents Elizabeth Brown when Tom decides to marry her. Basil, the one character with whom I identified, resents nobody.
With such a large cast the author is at some pains to distinguish them from each other, which she does by giving you a great deal of facts about each in turn. Nadine is beautiful, she is also barking. She is quite clearly barking because of her politics and her indifference to her kitchen. Sometimes the two come together, as when Nadine pours herself a cup of instant coffee:
It tasted strange, sweet but faintly mouldy, as almost everything had tasted during those uncomfortable but exhilarating months in the women's protest camp in Suffolk.
With sex off-stage throughout, kitchens are used to index the characters. Tom, an architect ‘in his mid or early fifties’, has a smashing kitchen:
It was the kind of kitchen you saw in showrooms or magazines, where no amount of supremely tasteful clutter could obscure the fact that every inch had been thought out, where every cupboard handle and spotlight had been considered, solemnly, before it was chosen.
Elizabeth, who at first is unsure about Tom, is even more unsure about his kitchen, just as later, at times of crisis, she is unsure about his cooking:
Tom put a bowl of salad on the table and a yellow pottery dish of new potatoes. The potatoes were freckled with parsley. Elizabeth looked at them. She wondered, with a kind of detachment, if it was normal to remember to garnish potatoes with parsley or if, and particularly this evening, it had a significance, a subtle message from the parsley chopper to the parsley consumer about the extra trouble taken and all that implied, about love being expressed in practical details because it was sometimes so impossible to express it more straightforwardly. Did Tom, when he cooked—which he did often and excellently—always remember the parsley?
His daughter Dale, a publisher's rep intent on breaking up the relationship between Tom and Elizabeth, immediately makes for the kitchen:
Dale had made osso bucco. She had Elizabeth David's Italian Food propped up ostentatiously against the coffee percolator, and she was chopping garlic and parsley and lemon rind with a long-bladed knife as she had seen television chefs do. The smell was wonderful. She hoped, when Tom came back from this mysterious drink with Lucas, he would say how wonderful the smell was, and not, as he had done the last few days, appear not to notice the effort she was making, the way she was trying to show him that she knew he was in pain, and was sorry. She was sorry, she told herself, chopping chopping …
This is the first novel I have read in which parsley is almost one of the characters.
And this is Nadine's kitchen:
She went across to the table and stacked the bowls and plates and mugs scattered across it into haphazard piles, and carried them over to the sink and dumped them in a plastic washing-up bowl. Then she picked up the washing-up liquid bottle. It was called ‘Eco-clear’ and had cost twice as much as the less environmentally friendly brand on the supermarket shelf next to it. It also, as Rory had pointed out, didn't work, dissolving into a pale scum on the water surface and having little effect on the dirty plates left over from the night before. Nadine squeezed the plastic bottle. It gave a wheezy sigh. It was almost empty.
No dishwasher. No chopping-board. And no parsley. The woman is quite clearly unhinged with her ‘Ecoclear’, so it comes as no surprise when her children leave her for their stepmother's kitchen, ‘quiet and empty, just as she had left it, with breakfast cleared away and the table bare …’
Meanwhile Elizabeth, now in love, is dreaming her dreams.
Sitting here in Tom's kitchen—soon-to-be-her kitchen—Elizabeth could acknowledge to herself at last, and with almost confessional relief, that it wasn't just wanting Tom that had overtaken her so powerfully. …
Of course not, she is after his kitchen.
Elizabeth looked round the kitchen, her eye lighting on this and that, a copper colander, a bottle of olive oil, a jug of wooden spoons, a stack of newspapers, a pair of reading glasses, a bunch of keys, a candlestick, and thought, with a sudden glow of happiness, ‘I'd like an open fire in here.’
As in pornography the writing quickens when Joanna Trollope gets near a kitchen, and there is the sudden obsession with descriptive detail, in the course of which the outside world just falls away.
Unfortunately she is nowhere near so interested in her characters who, after the initial assembly of facts about them, go on endlessly being themselves. But then I take it this is a symbolic book, in which the anguish of broken family life has nothing on the supreme symbol of the family, the desired or untidy kitchen which can convey all that and more.
I think I would have got the point sooner had this book been called Other People's Kitchens. That is the real horror which 2010 will bring.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369
SOURCE: Wales, Ruth Johnstone. “Love's Labor in a Small English Town.” Christian Science Monitor 90, no. 157 (9 July 1998): B5.
[In the following review, Wales offers a mixed assessment of The Best of Friends, commenting that the characters fail to engage the reader.]
“I think love is a very good place to start,” a psychologist counsels one of the wronged wives in Joanna Trollope's new novel. In fact, The Best of Friends is all about love: between friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, across generations.
For Vi and Dan, a pair of retirement-housing elders, love is a late-in-life warm blessing. For Laurence and Hilary and their three teenage sons, who run a small family inn, love is buried in busyness. For their elegant and wealthy friends Fergus and Gina, love has become lost in self-absorbed isolation.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Sophy, the 16-year-old daughter of Fergus and Gina. As she struggles to make sense of her disintegrating world, the middle-aged couples make a more muddled mess of it. Fergus goes off to share a house in London with another man, taking exactly half the furniture with him. Laurence decides he's in love with Gina and must go off to France with her. But Hilary, after the shock of Laurence's duplicity, seems to maintain some balance as she copes with the lesson on love she has to learn.
In both families, the teenagers find it hard to get anyone (except octogenarian Vi) to see how the adults' self-centered behavior is affecting them. At one point, Sophy reflects on the lesson that she's learning: “People didn't do things for other people, even if they loved them; they did them for themselves. Not necessarily because they were horrible and selfish but because that's how people were made, how they got through, survived.”
Set in a small provincial English town, this is a small-screen drama about limited lives and choices that narrow opportunities. Trollope, in the tradition of her ancestor Anthony, writes fluently, her plot flows, and the conversations are wonderfully real. But it's hard to care what happens to most of her characters. And the resolution of the mess is not particularly satisfying—even though young Sophy may have survived.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
SOURCE: Weeks, Brigitte. “A Tale of Ordinary Lives and Families Falling Apart.” Washington Post, no. 237 (30 July 1998): B2.
[In the following review, Weeks compliments the universality of Trollope's themes of romance, relationships, marriage, and children in The Best of Friends.]
Despite the longevity of Masterpiece Theatre, chroniclers of the ways of the British middle classes have a surprisingly difficult time scoring hits in the U.S. market. Joanna Trollope hasn't made her mark here yet. And that is a shame. Love, marriage, children and relationships are universal themes, and Joanna is as poised and intricate a portraitist as her famous novelist ancestor, Anthony Trollope.
The Best of Friends is the story of two marriages, many friendships and four teenagers—volatile ingredients. The two couples, Gina and Fergus Bedford, Hilary and Laurence Wood, live in the same mid-size English town and have known each other forever. Sophy, Gina and Fergus's only child, is good friends with George, Adam and Gus, the three Wood sons.
Without warning, Fergus leaves Gina and declares their marriage over. She turns to her childhood friend Laurence for help. Suddenly one separation seems to be turning into two. The domestic tale takes on almost Shakespearean dimensions. “All my novels focus on what making a choice really means,” Trollope told the London Observer. “I think sacrifice through choice is something that happens to almost everybody.” And these families are making choices that go to the core of their beings, while their daily lives move on in a familiar pattern and boys, as they have always done, leave their rooms in chaos.
It is this intense focus on raw emotional issues in everyday lives that lies at the heart of Joanna Trollope's work and sets it apart from cozy village green tales. With the tools of soap opera she builds a stark edifice. How do vulnerable adolescents deal with their parents' conflicts and unhappiness? What makes a successful, middle-aged antique dealer walk out on his wife, who has seen no clouds in their domestic sky? How does a talented chef and owner of a small family hotel make choices with profound implications for two families, eight lives?
For Hilary and Laurence, while their marriage and family is crumbling around them, there is still the hotel and an unexpected busload of elderly travelers to be fed and housed, still three boys to clean up for a family friend's funeral.
Over at Gina Bedford's house, there are only the half-empty rooms, bereft of Fergus's antiques, and the sorrowing, abandoned wife with her confused and angry daughter. “Fergus was not a safe man, not a safe father, not like Laurence,” Sophy realizes wistfully as she slips away undetected to visit him in London. Her instincts about her father and her agonized feeling of abandonment come together when she finally confronts Fergus: “You dumped me,” she storms. “All those years you took photographs of me and got my breakfast and read to me and paid me my pocket money and made me believe I could rely on you and then you just dumped me.”
Down the street the Wood boys are outraged and heartbroken as their comfortable world begins to crack. Sophy's mother, a family friend, has become a predator. Adam yells at his own mother, “Why don't you go and see her? Why don't you go and say she can't just help herself to Dad like this?”
The gardens of Whittingbourne continue to be weeded, the teen girls still go to school in black micro-skirts and long battered T-shirts, and Hilary Wood stocks the hotel kitchen from the Cash and Carry store. But no character in this novel, including the poignant Vi Sitchell, Gina's eccentric but lovable mother, remains untouched or unchanged by these months of turmoil. But, like everyone, they have to find a way of coping, of making the best repairs they can and moving on.
Trollope has a new U.S. publisher for The Best of Friends, so perhaps her thoughtful, seamless tales about ordinary people dealing with mundane yet searing problems will begin to reach more readers. She deserves them.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
SOURCE: Massingberd, Hugh. “Loads of Fun but Not a Barrel of Laughs.” Spectator 284, no. 8948 (5 February 2000): 35.
[In the following review, Massingberd describes Marrying the Mistress as a “remarkable” novel about intergenerational relationships and family dynamics.]
‘I'm one of those rare chaps,’ a genial Staffordshire landowner once told me, ‘who can boast that my mother was a Trollope.’ Arf-arf. Such gags would, I fear, fall into the ‘hearty’ category of male speech occasionally noted in Joanna Trollope's remarkable new novel [Marrying the Mistress] about the knock-on effects of a grandfather's affair on the ‘dynamics’ of family life.
The title itself has echoes of the notorious quip by Sir James Goldsmith (‘When a man marries his mistress, he automatically creates a vacancy’), but anyone who had expected an Aga saga of wronged womanhood and beastly masculinity has a startling surprise in store. In my ignorance, I had imagined Miss Trollope to be a faintly prim ‘woman's writer’. Perhaps her publishers are trying to tell us something by having her pose, with a discreet hint of cleavage, on a rumpled bed? Steady the Buffs.
Men should certainly rush out and buy this brilliant book in vast quantities. Not for the sex (‘And what happened to the phrase “making love”?’ asks the clear-sighted Carrie, one of the few sympathetic females in the story), there isn't any to speak of, but to rejoice in Miss Trollope's salutary and timely tribute to male sensitivity, strength combined with gentleness and long suffering at the hands of troublesome women. The men in Marrying the Mistress are little short of paragons: Guy Stockdale, a conscience-wracked Crown Court judge, ‘tall and personable, with a thick head of greying tawny hair’; the sons, Simon, a public-spirited solicitor married to Carrie but at the mercy of his ball-breaking mother, and Alan, a friendly designer who finds fulfilment with his uncomplicated doctor boyfriend; and the grandson, Jack, a lost lad in thrall to a young hussy called Moll Saunders.
All right, I admit that some of Miss Trollope's stirring hymns to male decency and bonding struck even me as a shade too good to be true. Yet as Terence Rattigan—another popular writer whose delicate understanding of English emotion has been underrated—showed at the end of Separate Tables, it is no bad thing to give reality a nudge in the right direction.
Miss Trollope's masterstroke (mistress-stroke?) is to demonise the two monstrous, manipulative matriarchs, Laura (Guy's estranged wife) and Gwen (mother of Guy's mistress, Merrion, an independent-minded barrister half his age) through the mouths of other women. Merrion—unfairly described by a court official as ‘His Honour's totty’—says that her mother
wants the world, and especially me, to live in her tiny life by her tiny rules and never even think of doing anything that might remotely upset her! She's a bully, in her respectable little way. That's what my mother is, a coward and a bully!
As for Laura—well, pin back your lug-holes as Cyril Fletcher used to say. ‘All that pure obstinacy masquerading as the poor victim,’ observes the capable Carrie of her mother-in-law's performance as the wronged wife. ‘These weak little women! They're always the ones you have to watch out for! They're lethal!’ And behind the arras (or rather the arbour, as Laura lives for her garden) Miss Trollope is waiting with her stiletto. ‘Her back,’ notes the author, ‘was eloquent of someone who doesn't believe they have a future.’ Seldom can self-pity have been so sharply skewered.
The writing is so deft, the telling domestic detail so well observed (Miss Trollope is sound on Sunday lunch) and the dialogue, particularly of the younger generation (running the gamut from ‘cool’ to ‘sad’) so well caught that the lack of humour doesn't seem to matter too much. There are a few nice digs at the passive aggression of unhelpful clerks and a Kingsley Amis-style rumble about ‘finger sandwiches’ (‘What on earth else, he wondered, would sandwiches resemble? Feet?’) suddenly erupts on page 295, but as an old earl observed of Margaret Duchess of Argyll: ‘She don't make many jokes.’
Nonetheless, the purple bookmark thoughtfully provided by the publishers proved unnecessary. I couldn't put the book down. Indeed I might say—sorry, but there is something about Joanna Trollope which brings out the saloon-bar boor in me—I never knew you could have so much fun without laughing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615
SOURCE: Tristram, Emma. “A Very Polite Refusal.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5056 (25 February 2000): 21.
[In the following review, Tristram asserts that Marrying the Mistress lacks both engaging dramatic elements and substantial characterizations.]
The main impulse behind the construction of Marrying the Mistress seems to be one of refusal. Joanna Trollope likes to suggest important elements, then say no to them. This starts with the setting; Guy Stockdale is a judge, and in the opening chapter his case involves an abused teenage girl. Asked why she slept with her stepfather, she says: “He was like a god to me.” This speech is more extreme and unusual than anything the main characters say to each other; but having delivered it, the girl never appears again. She is only there to give Guy terms with which to ponder his feelings for his wife, Laura, whom he has decided to leave for Merrion, a young barrister and his mistress of seven years. (“Guy wondered, detachedly, if he had ever seemed like a god to Laura.”) We are back in the world of the middle classes. And there is not going to be any probing of the law as a metaphor of authority, or its effect on people; it is invoked in order to provide Guy and Merrion with jobs.
Refusal continues as the plot develops. Guy could have been faced with a difficult moral dilemma; instead, marrying Merrion seems quite a sensible thing to do, especially since Laura is portrayed as a self-pitying, ungrateful monster. Alan, Guy and Laura's second son, is gay; potential life-and-death plot-lines abound, but instead of choosing one, Trollope gives him a nice new doctor lover, and together they persuade Laura to see sense, like a pair of good fairies. Guy and Merrion's relationship could have foundered dramatically; instead, the very minor peripeteia begins when Merrion takes umbrage over a cancelled dinner out. It is hard to care.
In a novel with a subject which surely ought to include it, Trollope refuses to write about sex. Jack, Guy's teenage grandson, sleeps with his girlfriend, but they are only discovered after the act, tucked up tidily in bed. Guy and Merrion's relationship is said to be “love”; but one has to glean what one can about their physical attraction from Merrion's passion for honey and her talent for doing clever things with light fittings. Trollope has said in an interview that she would rather “let the readers put the characters into bed if they want to”; but with this refusal she is rejecting a colourful part of the spectrum of possibilities now available to writers—a part which can help connect the emotional journeys of their characters to the physical world.
Trollope does try to embody the emotional states of her characters, but too often focuses on the drinks they consume. (Laura—a glass of cold white wine accompanied by shiny crackers, and left undrunk. Simon, her elder son—nasty office coffee with whitener.) Cumulatively, this device makes the emotions seem shallow and trivial. The drinks are often in danger of spilling, as much of the action takes place through the bizarre pseudo-realist convention of confrontational dialogue, with its choreographed actions between speeches. (“Gwen drained her teacup. ‘You're a stubborn man.’”) The repeated use of this convention feels like yet another refusal—this time of subtlety, impreciseness, double meanings.
Presumably Joanna Trollope does not think her readers want social criticism, real moral dilemmas, or any of the other things listed above. Perhaps she is right, and this is the closest some people want to come to this particular contemporary moral issue. But both she, and another kind of reader, might have more fun if she were more adventurous.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949
SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “The Last Straw.” Washington Post, no. 194 (16 June 2000): C2.
[In the following review, See observes that the central theme of Marrying the Mistress is how actions can have far-reaching effects on one's family and personal relationships.]
When Simon Stockdale [in Marrying the Mistress], a hard-working family man approaching his 40th birthday, hears that his own father will be leaving his mother and marrying a woman he's had an affair with for seven years, the news presents itself as unbearable in every way. For one thing, Simon has given over his whole life to a certain brand of probity and virtue. He and his wife seem never to have even been on a vacation; he has nothing to show for his life so far but three highly iffy adolescent children, a few good deeds done, and a spouse who seems to love him in spite of, rather than because of, himself. Virtue may be its own reward, and that's all right, but how come the rewards for not being virtuous include a gorgeous young attorney named Merrion who's sexy and smart and darling? Put another way, how does he, Simon, get stuck with the same old tired domestic life, when his 62-year-old dad gets to dump his wife and run off with a babe?
This is doubly piercing to Simon because he's always loved his mother with the fiercest part of himself and thought of his father as a bit of a thoughtless churl. Simon has realized he was the favorite son since he was born: this aura of a “special relationship” with his mother has colored all of his own life and tinted—or tainted—the collective lives of the extended family. Simon's brother, Alan, for instance, has always had to live with the fact that he's been largely overlooked. (Might this have anything at all to do, now, with the fact that Alan's gay?) And Simon's wife, Rachel, has spent her entire married life being snubbed and slighted by Simon's mother, on the grounds that no one on Earth could be good enough for her son.
Now Simon's father, Judge Guy Stockdale, has sent this whole set of domestic jackstraws tumbling. He just can't seem to play this elaborate game anymore, although to him—and to the rest of the family—it looks as if he's simply “fallen in love.” Is the judge a sex-crazed demon, a foul philandering husband, the dupe of a scheming woman? Or is something else going on?
Typically, as in any Joanna Trollope novel, this is not a story of “love” or “lust” between two characters. It's the author's contention that unless we find ourselves to be childless orphans living alone in furnished rooms pursuing lives of utter celibacy, whatever we do impinges totally on other people: We're all part of extended human constructs and games, and anybody, anywhere, can topple that delicate pile of human jackstraws or whatever metaphoric game we seem to be playing with, for or against the people we call our “family.” (The only personal—and false—note here would seem to be the title. Merrion says she is indeed a “mistress”: “We sleep together, you pay for some things for me, I keep myself exclusively for you. That's what they do, mistresses.” But since Merrion is a successful professional woman and a decent human being with a caring, active mother of her own, she doesn't really fit that job description. She doesn't languidly munch bonbons in a murky back-street apartment waiting for illicit passion. In fact, some of the most touching scenes here occur when she meets the judge's family, standing in his son's kitchen nervously sipping a glass of wine, making small talk, wondering if she should offer to help out.)
Of course, there must be another reason for the judge's bailing out of a 40-year marriage. The reason turns out to be his wife, who, for those 40 long years, has been acting like a world-class pill. That wife, Laura, has spent most of her life not liking anything and not going anywhere. Convinced that she's not “good” enough for her husband, she's retreated to the country, where she keeps dogs—but doesn't like them—and grows beautiful plants (which possess the singular virtue of not talking back). Laura plays her sons off each other and her husband off her sons: That's how pills are—practically every family has one or two—and the larger domestic organism tends to work around them, like oysters around sand.
But all this becomes unbalanced when the judge leaves his wife. He not only has that girlfriend; he wants to marry her, which is another way of saying that ecstatic sex may be demanding its own place in this staid-but-precarious collective family life. Simon and Rachel can hardly remember what sex for its own sake might be like; they're drowning in a cluttered, complicated sea of trivia. But their 16-year-old son Jack is both alarmed and enchanted by his grandfather's amorous adventures. In a sweetly orchestrated subplot, the author allows Jack to discover his own passionate world, just as his grandfather attempts to integrate the object of his desires into that family world we live in most of the time: dinner, gas bills, clean underwear, good manners, tired courtesies.
Trollope's traditional novelistic method is to put a double handful of her characters into some kind of spiritual hot water, and then turn them loose to sink or swim. In the most elegant and ingenious ways the author almost always makes sure that all of them get rescued. It's this quality of calm reassurance, as well as her emotional veracity, that makes Marrying the Mistress such a pleasure to read.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Next of Kin, by Joanna Trollope. Washington Post Book World 31, no. 28 (15 July 2001): 2.
[In the following review, Yardley commends Trollope for her examination of change, loss, transformation, renewal, and growth in Next of Kin.]
In this, as in her nine previous novels, Joanna Trollope finds large themes in unassuming surroundings and explores them with wit, feeling and originality. Next of Kin centers on a farming family, the Merediths, in England's Midlands. As it opens, one family member has just died, a victim of cancer; midway through a second dies, in more surprising and dramatic circumstances. From these sad events Trollope has fashioned a tale of loss, grief, transformation, renewal and growth, one in which there is much that is affirmative, but none of which is easily achieved.
Trollope writes about families, as do many of the best contemporary British writers. In this she stands in revealing contrast to her American counterparts, who too often reject domestic matters as inherently sentimental and focus more narrowly on the psychological and sexual existence of the individual narrator (e.g., Philip Roth), or more widely on canvasses fraught with political and ideological overtones (e.g., Don DeLillo). As one who readily admits to finding the family the largest and deepest subject of all, I turn to Trollope's fiction for satisfaction and relief much as, until his death seven years ago, I did to Peter Taylor's.
Unlike many of Trollope's previous novels, Next of Kin takes a while to get going. A funeral is a somber beginning for a novel, and there is a substantial cast of characters to be introduced: Carolyn Meredith, dead of cancer while still in her forties, and her widower, Robin; their adopted daughter, Judy, in her early twenties; Robin's brother, Joe, his wife, Lyndsay, and their children; the brothers' septuagenarian parents, Harry and Dilys; and, in short order, various farm workers, friends and others whose lives touch upon the families. Trollope is a bit less sure-handed than usual in getting all of these people into place, but the reader is urged to be patient, for once it gets under way Next of Kin tells a powerful story about complex people to whom usual things happen—in this case loss and grief—in ways that are both usual and unusual.
One reason Trollope cannot be categorized (much less dismissed) as a sentimental novelist of domestic life is that she is so determinedly unsentimental about her characters. Take, for starters, Carolyn, or Caro as everyone calls her. Growing up in California the daughter of hippie-ish parents, she became a “nomad” at an early age. To her brother-in-law Joe, who had a brief American period before settling down on the family farm, she “carried with her something of that freedom he had known in America, that air of always keeping moving, keeping searching, that had briefly infected him like a sea fever.” Quiet but insistent in manner, she found refuge among the Merediths, “people who identified themselves more by place than by personality or trade,” and married Robin not for love but for something else.
Precisely what that something was becomes a question that, after her death, slowly insinuates itself into the minds of the two people closest to her, Robin and Judy. They and the others in the family, Joe most especially, feel a large loss at her death, yet no one seems to know the true nature of that loss or how to express the grief it brings. An outsider among insiders, a California girl among English farm people, Caro is a mystery. As the puzzle of her character gradually unfolds, it discloses aspects of herself, as well as of Robin and Judy, that no one had fully apprehended.
It becomes clear, for example, that the marriage of Caro and Robin was something less than idyllic. They'd had separate bedrooms for two decades and precious little physical relationship in all those years. They'd adopted a child because Caro was unable to have one herself, as she was well aware before she married Robin yet declined to tell him. What was on her mind? Was she afraid to tell him for fear she would lose him, or was it a calculated deception, or an entrapment if you will? No final answer is given because Caro is no longer around to testify—and doubtless wouldn't even if she were—but the reader, like Robin and Judy, is left to understand that Caro was not what she had seemed to be, and that some aspects of her were less than admirable.
The same goes for Judy. One's initial instinct is to be sympathetic to her. Her natural mother had declined to keep her, after all, and now the adopted mother to whom she was almost blindly devoted has died. Yet closer inspection reveals her own flaws. She doesn't exactly reject her father, but she assumes that the troubles in her parents' marriage were all his fault, and she has little patience for what she sees as his cold mistreatment of her mother. A kind young man with whom she has a brief romance sees through her: “It had occurred to Oliver that her persistent attitude to her father was just one more of Judy's excuses, excuses for not putting up with things or just getting on with things the way other people did. And Oliver … was getting pretty tired of Judy's excuses.”
Oliver is perceptive, but the outsider who really sees through to the heart of the Merediths is Zoe, a free-spirited young woman with whom Judy shares a flat in London. She has, Robin thinks when Judy brings her to visit, a “boldness about her, a directness you usually only found in animals,” and it is when she enters the picture that the novel really bursts alive. Unlike Judy, who sees her father, her family and the farm through a distorted lens, Zoe sees them all clearly, and finds much to like and admire in what she sees. Having been taken to the farm as Judy's guest, she shocks Judy—and Robin—by returning on her own, uninvited. When Robin asks why she came, she replies: “Look, it's perfectly simple. I wanted to see you again. … I liked it here and I liked you. So I came back. See?” Robin chews it over in his mind:
Simple, she'd said. I liked the farm and I like you, so I came back for more. Simple as that. That's the truth. For a moment, outside his window now, the moon hung clearly in an unclouded space, a simple silver disc except for its blurred unfinished edge, polished and pure. Robin pulled a hand out of his bedclothes and scratched his head, hard. Two rooms away, down the narrow landing, Zoe slept, her strange red head dark on a white pillow, sleeping because—being Zoe—that was what the night was for. You did what you needed to do and didn't mind who saw you. There was nothing to hide. Life was for living and there were many, many ways of living it. Zoe lived hers her way and let other people do the same. Simple. See?
Thus begins the transformation and renewal of Robin Meredith. Judy Meredith, too. As Zoe tells Judy, “One of the things about grief is change, it changes your life and the people in your life, it makes you move on when you don't want to. And that hurts. It's the change you don't want that hurts.” Those wise words are at the very heart of this novel, which is itself wise, not to mention rich and surprising, the latter in ways that often catch the reader—not to mention the characters themselves—unawares.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
SOURCE: Harris, Michael. “Author Keeps Characters' Motivations Shrouded in Secrecy.” Los Angeles Times (7 August 2001): E3.
[In the following review, Harris notes that grief plays a pivotal role in Next of Kin, but comments that Trollope's use of omniscient narration lessens the novel's overall impact.]
Caro Meredith never quite fit in. A rootless Californian, a self-described “nomad,” she married an English dairy farmer out of her hunger for permanence but kept subtly aloof from her husband, Robin, and his family. All the more surprising, then, that Caro's death from a brain tumor should have such an impact on the Merediths, sending out shock waves to disrupt every part of their world.
Robin loved Caro but felt she didn't love him back. The evidence: She kept her infertility a secret until long after their wedding. She seduced their adopted daughter Judy into siding with her “progressive” ideas and rejecting Robin's stodgy Midlands ways.
Robin's brother Joe loved Caro, or at least saw in her American ease an expression of freedom he longed for Joe farms the neighboring property, where his and Robin's parents live along with his wife and children. Burdened by debt and depression. Joe kills himself soon after Caro's funeral, throwing the family into even greater turmoil.
Nobody in Joanna Trollope's latest novel is exempt from grief, the wrenching changes it imposes and the unexpected consolations life brings in its wake. Indeed, the protagonist of Next of Kin isn't so much any human character as the process of grieving itself, with its parallels to farming—the cutting down, the lying fallow, the sowing of new seed.
In Robin's case, consolation comes from another outsider. Judy's trendy London flat mate Zoe, a photographer with dyed hair and flamboyant jewelry, comes to visit and sees him as Judy never could—as a kind man who has had a hard time. Half Robin's age, Zoe moves in with him, sending out more shock waves: It's a scandal, and nobody is angrier about it than Judy.
Zoe, with her courage, her calm, her precocious wisdom (“Don't always be right. Please,” Judy implores her toward the end), is one of the misty areas in a picture that Trollope otherwise presents with a reassuring solidity of physical and psychological detail. We know that Zoe's father abandoned her and that she, like Caro, longs for permanence. What we never quite get a fix on is why she should be sexually drawn to a middle-aged farmer in dung-spattered overalls.
Caro, too, is misty. In a flashback, Trollope describes her life up to the moment when Robin proposes marriage, then abandons her point of view. We never learn—despite the influence these attitudes had on her family—why she fell out of love or why she was “unable to settle” in England despite living there for 20 years.
The biggest mystery, perhaps, is Joe. We enter his mind briefly as he stands in Caro's bedroom after her funeral. His money worries are mentioned. But what exactly Caro meant to him and what are the sources of his despair—when to his parents and neighbors he has always been a golden boy—remain elusive.
Trollope (The Rector's Wife,A Spanish Lover,Marrying the Mistress) is a skilled and veteran chronicler of contemporary English middle-class life. In Next of Kin, she makes convincing characters out of everyone from Robin's hired herdsman to his 3-year-old nephew, who mourns Joe with magical thinking, thumb-sucking and a stuffed seal.
She describes the farming life—a ceaseless struggle against weather, disease, mishap and, latterly, environmental regulation—with authority.
Therefore, we think, the misty areas in the story must be misty by design. People die and take their secrets with them, Trollope seems to be saying, but her choice of omniscient narration works against this: She could tell us if she chose. All secrets are accessible, and withholding the ones she does—in favor of lengthy passages about slurry and silage and tractors—seems perverse.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
SOURCE: de Lisle, Leanda. “A Romantic Novel without the Throbbing Manhood.” Spectator 288, no. 9052 (2 February 2002): 32.
[In the following review, de Lisle faults Girl from the South as a painfully boring read, but assures readers that fans of Trollope's writing will probably enjoy the novel.]
I had some idea that Girl from the South might be an aga saga. As an aga owner, I was intrigued, but as Trollope's thousands of fans know, she has turned her back on agas. She writes critically acclaimed books about the sagas of step-parenting and divorce instead. Fay Weldon compares her to Austen. Her latest book addresses the plight of the single 30-year-old—a subject so stale you'd have to be Austen to get away with it.
The story opens with a frizzy-haired woman enjoying a power shower in Charleston, South Carolina. No agas there, we can be sure. Gillon, our 30-year-old heroine, was a bookish child and remains unmarried and unattached. Her younger sister, who likes to look nice, has, on the other hand, been married for simply ages. The whole family are soon called together to hear the glad news that little sis is pregnant. It's a reminder for poor old Gillon that she had better get on and find herself a husband.
Thus far we have seen very little of Austen's humour. In fact the nearest we get to her is when Gillon's mother, Martha, is found in the kitchen wearing an apron that says, ‘I'd rather be reading Jane Austen’. As for Trollope's famous insights into human relationships, as a member of the Bridget Jones generation (married), I found them coming dangerously close to being told what's what by mother. Trollope didn't seem quite at home in South Carolina either. For all the interviews she conducted and the notes she took I'd rather have been reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Gillon moves to London to get away from her relations. As they are all ghastly, brutish males or grizzly, unfulfilled females, I sympathised, but Gillon does not improve on acquaintance. She is plain, uptight and, frankly, a bore. At a party another single 30-year-old woman—Tilly—accidentally spills some wine on her. Gillon then moves into the flat Tilly shares with her long-term boyfriend Henry. Henry is tall and handsome and doesn't want to marry Tilly. Gillon fancies him, but he is her friend's boyfriend. Oh dear, am I boring you? I'm afraid we are now in romantic novel territory, but without the sex. I'm not a big fan of throbbing manhoods, at least not on the written page, but I yearned for something that might make me feeling a little more engaged with these ‘singletons’. A smell, a touch … but all we get is yak yak yak as the characters discuss their emotions. I'd rather have been reading Andy McNab.
It came as a strange relief when Gillon left London and went back to South Carolina with its sad Southern belles and loyal black servants. Like Gillon I thought, once again, that a change of scenery would lead to something that would make me a happier person. But its gets a whole lot worse there. Henry has gone to Charleston as well to get away from Tilly and he falls in love with the Charleston, Gillon's family and eventually … but I don't want to give anything away. There are films you know you are going to love whatever the critics say. I was painfully bored by Girl from the South, but perhaps that's just because I'm too much of a tweed-skirted aga-owner to enjoy a lot of emoting. ‘It's not Joanna, it's me’, as one of her characters might say. I hope her fans enjoy it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 601
SOURCE: Holden, Wendy. “Lager Saga.” New Statesman 131, no. 4573 (4 February 2002): 51.
[In the following review, Holden commends Trollope's portrayal of family relations in Girl from the South, calling the work “ tightly written” and “acutely observed.”]
I was always a huge fan of Joanna Trollope's Aga sagas, especially on telly. For my money, Lindsay Duncan's performance as the angst-ridden, adulterous rector's wife [in The Rector's Wife] was the highlight of her acting career (which cannot be said for her inexplicably well-received Private Lives with Alan Rickman). I felt Trollope was being gloriously subversive with the flawed-middle-class-perfection storyline, intrinsically tongue-in-cheek with the multiplicity of cheekbones, cabbage roses and other Cotswold clichés. The slightly balding but dashing boyfriend was perfect, and the bits where posh Lindsay took a job in a supermarket were sublime social comedy. I can recall it all instantly, although it is ten years since it was screened.
Following a painful divorce and what looks like a make-over, Trollope turned her back on Aga sagas. Given the growth of Grey Power, she could, one imagines, profitably have turned her hand to Saga sagas—or followed on in the same vein as last year's smash hit, Marrying the Mistress. Instead, she's gone all young and impecunious on us. There's not a betrayed-but-comfortably-off country wife to be seen in Girl from the South, still less a barrister with a mid-life crisis. Troublesome public-school-educated teens? Forget it. Not even a farmhand with wandering hands. This book, on the contrary, is the nearest Trollope has yet got to chick lit, the living-in-a-bedsit-in-London-waiting-for-Mr-Right school of novels.
Basically, it's a lager saga. Henry and William, the two main characters, spend lots of time in bars drinking and discussing the other major players: troubled Henry's too-perfect editor girlfriend Tilly, who wants to marry him, and feckless William's slapdash sidekick Susie, who wants to do whatever she feels like at the time. And also the mysterious, red-headed Gillon, flatmate of Henry and Tilly, and the title's “girl from the South”, an American art historian come to London to escape the expectations of her family.
Single and unsettled, Gillon has always felt like a black sheep compared to the rest of her professionally and socially eminent clan in Charleston, South Carolina. Her average looks may pale in comparison to those of her blonde, skinny sister, yet they prove enough to entice Henry to visit her in the States. Once there, Henry is sufficiently seduced by the beauty of Charleston and Gillon's colourful, welcoming kinsfolk to pursue his ambition to be a wildlife photographer. This break with Britain is the book's dramatic high point—agony and betrayal for Tilly, guilt for Gillon, and opportunity for William, who has been after Tilly for years.
At the heart of Trollope's tightly written, acutely observed novel is what it means to be a family. Despite typifying different varieties of single Londoner, William, Henry, Tilly and Susie are a clan. They alternately irritate, love and look out for each other, in just the same way as Gillon's establishment family in Carolina. And that family, it turns out, is not as close-knit as it seems.
What is interesting is that, despite the novel's much-hyped cast of younger characters, and the change of setting from south-west England to Deep South America, the essential Trollope remains. The angsts of the educated middle class prevail; through Henry and William in particular, Trollope explores the effect of the burden of choice on the contemporary have-it-all generation, and the wearying, endless pressure of having to achieve perfection in every possible personal and professional sphere. You can take the girl out of Gloucestershire …
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
SOURCE: Tilghman, Christopher. “Innocents Abroad.” Washington Post Book World 32, no. 25 (23 June 2002): 9.
[In the following review, Tilghman criticizes Trollope for failing to accurately portray the life and culture of the American South in Girl from the South.]
How the English regard the American deep South—indeed, what they know of its distinctive surviving characteristics—is a source of speculation for many of us. When a novelist with a fine sense of what Flannery O'Connor called the mystery and manners of ordinary life takes on the task, we can read with special interest. The English novelist Joanna Trollope is certainly a strong candidate, and her new novel, Girl from the South, is an entertaining chronicle of several well-realized ordinary lives, but the central question promised by the plot remains unexplored.
Part of the problem—if indeed it is a problem for Trollope's many readers—is that the story is built around a surprising twist. The girl of the title is Gillon Stokes, nearly 30, and a deep concern of at least three generations of her Charleston-bred family. When the novel opens, she is unmarried, a washed-out Ph.D. student and an intern at the Pinckney Museum of Art—a most unpromising member of Charleston society. When her boss at the museum puts her onto a job as a researcher for an art conservator in London, she jumps at the chance.
In England, she meets and is befriended by a small band of somewhat feckless English twenty-somethings, including Tilly, an art magazine editor who lives with and is desperately trying to get Henry Atkins to marry her. Atkins, a wildlife photographer, is just as desperately fending her off. In the wings is William, waiting for the chance to save and win Tilly when Henry dumps her for good, and Susie, who—most refreshingly—is simply looking for good sex. Into this ménage comes Gillon, an oddity in almost every respect, with her colorful accent, wild tangle of ginger-colored hair, depressed but not entirely docile demeanor.
All of this is quite wonderfully drawn: the shabbiness of Tilly's and Henry's flat, the threadbare offices of the characters' various employers, the rootlessness of their lives. Tilly is the one who wants to make one more stab at how things ought to be, but she's wasting her time, and when Gillon finally decides it's time to go back home, Henry follows her to the New World.
This, then, is the twist that Trollope has planned for us: England is the melting pot, the culture with neither roots nor history. The United States is the place where Chippendales are passed down with unbroken regularity, the place where, as Gillon's brother Cooper tells Henry, “we all know where we come from.” This is just what Henry is looking for, and he jumps right in. “You can get very tired,” he responds to Cooper, “of making all of your life for yourself. All the time.”
These are all good and interesting insights, and we can sympathize, I would suspect, with Henry's sense of exhaustion. But if Trollope is holding up Charleston and the Stokeses' infinitesimally narrow band of wealth and privilege as typical of much in the deep South, she may have made a mistake. If Europeans really think this is what the South is all about, we're in trouble. Historic Charleston may not have been built from the ground up by Walt Disney, but the families run it like a theme park just the same.
And then, too, when a novelist of any origin takes on the American South qua South, she not only confronts the challenges of rendering a setting for action but also assumes a not entirely fair burden of meeting the standards of the Southern literary tradition. Trollope inserts a few stray details—Gullahs walk on for a moment, grits are mentioned—but when it comes to portraying a place, Flannery O'Connor would not be impressed. This is a flaw not because Trollope doesn't do it right, but because the plot hinges on Henry's love affair with this place, and readers never get a real look at what he loves.
Perhaps most of this is simply a quibble with an otherwise well-told story enlivened by thoroughly convincing and quite likable people trying to make their ways through life. If she seems to miss the peculiarities of the South, Trollope has no trouble with her native land. Girl from the South is an ensemble production, and the trials and mishaps of Tilly, William and Susie in England, and those of Gillon and Henry in America, are affecting and true. But I'm still wondering what the English make of the real South, and I'd like to know soon, before globalization and telecommunications render the whole question moot.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
SOURCE: Murphy, Bernadette. “A Facile, Feel-Good Tale of Tangled Relationships.” Los Angeles Times (9 July 2002): E3.
[In the following review, Murphy comments that Girl from the South ultimately fails to address the complexities of human relationships.]
“Chick flick” is the term, often used pejoratively, to describe those films that attract a predominantly female audience. Typically told from a woman's perspective, these films tend to highlight relationships over plot-driven action, use either internal monologues or heart-to-heart conversations to reveal motivations and portray character development and often include some kind of tear-inducing scene as a cathartic release. Certain books follow this same model. Joanna Trollope's Girl from the South treads this feminine territory with a degree of lyricism, energetic writing and sharp imagery. However, the novel doesn't address the deepest complexities at the heart of human relationships.
Gillon Stokes is the title's girl from the South, a nearly 30-year-old woman in Charleston, S.C., who works as an art museum intern but can't quite make the leap to a full-fledged career in art conservation. She hasn't found the perfect man to settle down with and watches as her younger sister Ashley effortlessly meets all the Southern expectations of feminine roles: a husband, a home, a baby on the way. Gillon can meet none of these and isn't sure she wants to. Ready for a change in scenery and urged by her boss to explore new opportunities, she prepares for a job in London with a small firm specializing in the conservation of Italian Renaissance paintings.
Meanwhile, Tilly and Henry, a couple on the far side of the Atlantic, are stalled out in their relationship. Tilly wants Henry to propose but Henry isn't ready for that kind of commitment. Their lives are populated with equally unrooted friends. The comparison makes for a tidy juxtaposition: Gillon's clannish family and Southern life on one hand, the rootlessness of urban London on the other. Enter Gillon on the London scene, and the heart-to-heart talks about relationships, the tears-held-back scenes and the soul-searching take off.
The plot revolves around questions of relationship: Will Tilly succeed in getting Henry to marry her? Will Gillon find a man or career of her own? Will Ashley overthrow the expectations placed on her or succumb to them? Will Gillon and Tilly heal the childhood wounds that still constrain each of them?
“I'm a woman,” Gillon's mother, Martha, says at one point, “… and women don't, as a rule, identify themselves primarily by what they do, what their career is. That's very satisfactory, a career, to a lot of women, but women measure themselves by their relationships, they identify themselves that way.” This is an interesting comment from a woman who's shunned expectations to become a psychiatrist and has put career goals above familial roles, but British author Trollope (Next of Kin) doesn't address that discrepancy, nor the undercurrents running beneath these issues.
Though the writing is strong, the story is predictable. From the moment we meet each character, none of whom are eccentric or terribly unusual, we can see how and why they are stalled in their lives. We watch as they untangle life lessons, employing therapy-speak to help each other through as they come into their own as mature individuals.
“Sometimes, we can only feel a sense of place … from the outside,” Gillon is told before taking off for London. “It's not your fault. It's not Mama's fault. It's not my fault. It's the tension … between being an individual and being part of a collective,” Gillon advises Ashley when postpartum depression hits.
That thoughtful, deep novels of true artistic merit can be written about women and their relationships was proven most recently by Mona Simpson's Off Keck Road. Not much happens in the way of extreme plot occurrences; rather, the book limns the quiet lives of friends and family members getting older and staying put, but in doing so, plumbs the intricacies of human relationships.
In comparison, Girl from the South is perfect beach reading, offering feel-good-about-yourself platitudes, abundant character anguish over the guy that got away and comforting plot resolutions. It's the consummate chick flick for the page.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
SOURCE: Fraser, Antonia. “Charting a Minefield.” Spectator 294, no. 9157 (7 February 2004): 30.
[In the following review, Fraser offers a positive assessment of Brother and Sister, calling the work “a very fine and complex novel.”]
The title of Joanna Trollope's new novel—Brother and Sister—arouses interesting Jacobean expectations. Is there a whiff of incest here to join the lesbian perfume of A Village Affair (a personal favourite, just ahead of The Rector's Wife)? But there is in fact no Jacobean incest along the lines of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. There is pity indeed from Trollope, in a very fine and complex novel, but the subject is the far more modern one of adoption. The brother and sister in question, David and Nathalie, are not blood relations, simply two babies given away by their mothers and adopted by the same woman, Lynne, whose husband cannot beget children. Legally, they are of course exactly the same as any brother and sister brought up within the same marriage, but emotionally their bond is something different. Or is it? How would they know? Nathalie is the elder, the sister who persuaded the much abused little David, finding a new haven with Lynne, to join the human race. And now both Nathalie and David are adults, one with a partner, Steve, the other with a wife, Marnie, and both with children.
The impulses which start the plot off are, both of them, seemingly random. Nathalie and Steve's daughter, Polly, has to have some fairly minor ear operation which may (or may not) be due to a hereditary condition, and this starts Nathalie on a train of thought about her past. At the same time Sasha, girlfriend of Titus, one of the workers in Steve's design office, initiates a slightly impudent conversation with Steve on the subject of Nathalie and her known adoption. Sasha wants an interview with Nathalie to aid her project about personal identity:
‘It would be so interesting. It would be such a contrast, you see, such a completely other take on the accepted wisdom, such a refreshing change—’
‘From the acknowledged violence of the primal wound.’
Sasha said clearly, as if quoting, ‘The abandoned baby lives inside every adoptee all his life.’
Steve is sure that Nathalie will refuse, but of course she accepts. And from that follows the initiation of contacts between Nathalie and her birth mother, and her brother David and his. And of course, quite a few other things as well. The abandoned baby, in Sasha's phrase, may or may not live in every adoptee, but one of the conclusions one draws from this fascinating book is that all contact with adoptees, whether in marriage, partnership or parenthood (biological or legal), constitutes a potential minefield.
Trollope preaches no morals—she never does, that is one of her strengths—so at the end of the day we simply do not know whether Nathalie and David would have been happier if they had not sought out their birth mothers. Both the birth mothers in question—of very different social class, but united by the fact that they have never got over the removal of their (illegitimate) firstborn—might, I fancied, have been happier if left to themselves. Certainly Martin, the elder legitimate son of David's recently discovered birth mother, reacts violently to the whole situation and warns David off in crude terms: ‘His mother'd had a choice of three sons, and had only chosen two’ was Martin's way of putting it.
This careful and compelling delineation of the minefield (yet is it any better to leave a baby in a home?) comes at the moment when further possibilities of the discovery of sperm donor parents are being discussed. Joanna Trollope would be, on the evidence of this book, a suitable member of any commission or panel on the subject, not only because she does not take a moral stance, but because she is never sentimental. Why she was ever described as writing ‘Aga sagas’ I cannot imagine. This cosy nickname has nothing to do with her work, which is rivetingly readable but challenging rather than cosy. In this book almost everyone emerges sadly but gallantly, except perhaps the egregiously irritating Sasha. (By the way, she seduces Steve.)