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April 3, 2011

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

In her very strange book Felicity and Barbara Pym, Harrison Solow notes that Barbara Pym doesn’t so much write a lot about tea as that English novelists fixate on tea in general. Solow also writes that one hoping to learn more about the Pymmian universe could do with reading Joanna Trollope, which is the reason I decided to pick up Trollope’s new novel Daughters-in-Law. In which cups of tea are poured throughout, the ceremony never illustrated as quotably as it is by Pym, but how could it be? But yes, still, the tea at all signals perfect Englishness and is absolutely delightful.

Though Trollope writes of Pymmian class concerns, her work lacks the undercurrents that make Barbara Pym so subtly literary. This, however, also means that to read Daughters-in-Law this week was to escape into a world where plot dominates, and it was entirely easy to becoming altogether lost, which was a treat considering the week that I’d had. A double treat, actually, because I’ve had such a problem with commercial fiction since becoming a more demanding reader– is it too much to ask for accessible but not bad? And as I read through Daughters-in-Law, I kept coming up to intersections where lesser writers would turn off onto cliched avenues, but Joanna Trollope missed them every time.

Cliched characters are avoided too (for the most part) by Trollope presenting her story from multiple points of view, and so we see the impulsive, self-centred mother-in-law Rachel  from her own perspective and gain sympathy for her situation. That she has devoted her life to her family, to making her home the centre of her family’s life, a rambling bohemian nest in Suffolk where her husband paints birds in his studio, and she conducts cooking classes in her kitchen. Her position as the family’s centre has never been challenged, even with her two elder sons married, as one has married a woman whose family is abroad, and the other has no family at all. When her youngest marries a girl whose centre is eternally fixed on the self, however, friction is inevitable and explosions ensue.

Trollope writes with assurance of modern life– Pymmian and “old fashioned” aren’t necessarily synonyms, and I don’t think a curate turns up once. The youngest son Luke is forced to kick his cocaine habit before Charlotte will go out with him, however. And though Rachel and her husband Anthony live without a care on their inherited wealth, their children are all slightly constrained by housing prices. Trollope also writes matter-of-factly of one character’s experience with post-partum depression, which is incidental to the plot, life having gone on since the occurrence (as life often tends to do).

She also doesn’t have to rely on adultery for this novel about marriage and family relationships to progress, which is not to say that adultery itself is a cliche, but it usually is as portrayed in fiction. To write an an entire novel so compelling about people who (for the most part) behave quite decently is no small feat. And also, for that matter, Pymmish. It abounds!

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