Sometimes it’s odd the way writers get pigeonholed. Browsing the list of novels by Joanna Trollope the other day on Amazon.com, I was startled to find so many reader/reviewers, professed admirers of her work, categorizing it as “vacation reading.” Maybe it depends on how they spend their vacations, but Trollope’s work has always seemed to me deeper and more serious than what most of us take along to while away the time at the beach or on a cruise.
Yes, Trollope writes almost exclusively about domestic life, which pushes familiar buttons for all of us; she views her characters with a clear but kind and forgiving eye; and mothers and daughters are of particular interest to her. Yes, too, doubtless through no fault of her own, the cover illustrations on American editions of her books often seem designed to appeal to women — the cover of “Daughters-in-Law” shows a mother and daughter looking out at the sea — but that doesn’t mean one should file her away as “a woman’s writer.” She doesn’t belong in that pigeonhole any more than do other British writers with whom she is roughly contemporaneous: Fay Weldon (a professed admirer of her work), Isabel Colegate, Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner et al.
“Daughters-in-Law” is the sixth of Trollope’s novels that I have reviewed — she has published 16 — and I’ve had nothing but praise for all of them, as well as for those that I’ve read but not reviewed. Inasmuch as I am neither a woman nor a devotee of “women’s novels,” this suggests — to me if to no one else — that her appeal is broader than that category and that her depictions of family life reach, at their keenest, genuine universality. Her eye may be kind and forgiving, but she cuts no one any slack, and the experiences her characters undergo often are painful and difficult, with repercussions that alter their lives, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. In other words, life treats them just the way it treats us, one of many reasons why it is so easy to identify and sympathize with them.
Interconnections and interactions among generations are often central to Trollope’s novels, never more so than in “Daughters-in-Law,” as indeed the title implies. Though every member of the Brinkley family takes center stage at one moment or another, there is no central character per se, unless that distinction belongs to the family itself, “all of them being so close and being so involved with each other,” as Sigrid, one of the daughters-in-law, puts it, and not happily. The elders of the family, Anthony and Rachel Brinkley, presumably in their 60s, have produced three sons, now ranging in age from the late 20s to the late 30s. All of them are married — Luke, the youngest, marries Charlotte as the novel begins — and two of them have children: Edward, “the responsible eldest son of the family, the one who had to listen on the phone when Granny rang up with a problem,” and Sigrid have Mariella, 8 years old; and Ralph and Petra have Kit and Barney, 3 and “still not walking.”
Rachel is domineering, impatient and willful. When the boys were young, she had been “a tiger mother [who] could not help but feel that being the mother of sons conferred upon her a peculiar and visceral consequence.” When Edward married Sigrid, Rachel deeply resented that the ceremony was held in the bride’s native Sweden rather than the Brinkley family’s ancestral household on the North Sea coast of Suffolk, and this resentment has not faded, causing unnecessary tension between the two women. Anthony had discovered Petra as an exceptionally talented student in the art class he taught, and when he learned that she had been orphaned and was struggling on her own at the age of 20, he and Rachel took her under their wings with the hope that she would marry Ralph, Rachel’s beloved problem child:
“Edward’s comparative orthodoxy and Luke’s youth and optimism made them both less of an anxiety to Rachel than Ralph. But Ralph was designed to cause anxiety, and was also designed to be completely oblivious to his capacity for being a constant small nagging worry to her, like an emotional toothache, bearable much of the time but with a propensity to flare up without notice, and cause agony.”
Now Ralph has gotten himself into real trouble. The bankers have refused to extend further credit to the small business he tried to start, and he’s had to shut it down. Edward arranges an interview for him at the London bank where he works, Ralph gets the job, but he is left with “no idea whatsoever how he was going to manage a working life that expected a minimum of twelve-hour days in an office that was almost three hours’ traveling time from his wife and children,” a problem further compounded by Petra, who flatly refuses to leave the little seaside community where they now live. So just about everyone in the family sides against her, and Rachel tries — as always — to take command.
Into which melee steps Charlotte. She is young and beautiful, the youngest of three sisters in her own family, spoiled and demanding, yet surprisingly tough. Much to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte intervenes in the family squabble in a bold and unexpected way, leaving Rachel “to find that the newest of her daughters-in-law was not in the least afraid of standing up to her.” This comes some time after a dreadful luncheon at Charlotte and Luke’s little London flat in which Rachel suddenly, inexplicably, berates Charlotte with such cruelty that everyone else is shocked and angry. When Charlotte complains to her older sister Sarah about Rachel, Sarah says bluntly, “she’s a mother-in-law” for whom “nobody will ever be good enough for her boy.” And when Charlotte moans about her marriage, Sarah lays it on the line:
“Charlotte, we’re all thrilled you married Luke, we think he’s lovely and the wedding was wonderful. But marriage isn’t just more of the same. And most of all, marriage doesn’t happen in public. It’s not a sort of performance where you can ask the audience for help when you feel things aren’t going your way. You’ve got to sort it, together. You have no idea about my relationship with Chris, have you? It’s never entered your head. Well, it’s not a picnic, but we manage. And you’ll have to manage. You’ve got a nice guy and a nice place to live and you’re not on the breadline. Deal with it.”
That, in three words, is what Trollope says to all her characters: Deal with it. Some of them win, some of them lose, but none gets off easily. Petra, “drifting about, refusing to grow up, all daffy and artistic,” as Edward puts it in a moment of passing anger, has to snap out of her reverie — or is it a coma? — and deal with the demands of Ralph’s new job. Sigrid has to deal with the frustration of being away from her family and her native country. Charlotte has to deal with any number of challenges, the most daunting of them being Rachel.
At the end nobody is quite the same as she or he was at the beginning. The only hint I’ll give is that Rachel is considerably chastened, but how that comes to pass is for you to find out in the course of this thoroughly engaging, intelligent, literate novel.
By Joanna Trollope
319 pp. Paperback,