A Hornet's Nest

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, March 7, 2006


By Joanna Trollope

Bloomsbury. 323 pp. $23.95

Joanna Trollope has published more than a dozen novels, all of which deal in one way or another with what is arguably the richest and most universal of subjects: family life. This is, of course, Jane Austen territory, and although it would be a bit much to pronounce Trollope the Austen of our age, it must be said that she comes close. She knows the subject intimately, has studied it with care, views it clearly and fondly but utterly without sentimentality, and writes about it in prose that is notable for its lucidity and grace.

"Second Honeymoon" is Trollope at close to her best and at her most characteristic. It is the story of the Boyds, a middle-class family in London that reaches a moment of crisis with no clue as to what's coming. The father, Russell, is a theatrical agent in his mid-fifties. The mother, Edie, a bit younger, is a former actress who has spent much of the past three decades tending to her household. They have three children: Matt, 28, "the most orthodox," working at a conventional job and earning a lot less than the woman he lives with; Rosa, 26, bouncing from job to job, deep in debt after being taken to the cleaners by a charismatic and unprincipled boyfriend; and Ben, 22, who has just moved out of the house and "gone five stops up the Victoria [subway] line to Walthamstow" to live with his girlfriend.

Ben's departure throws Edie for a loop. She can't stand it that all the children are gone, that "home" to each of them is someplace other than the comfortable if ramshackle old house in which she had reared them. "I want him back," she tells Russell over tea. "I want him back to make me laugh and infuriate me and exploit me and make me feel necessary ." To which Russell replies: "You talk about wanting Ben back. You talk about his energy and neediness and that way it makes you feel. Well, just think for a moment about how I feel. I didn't marry you in order to have Matt and Rosa and Ben, though I'm thankful we did. I married you because I wanted to be with you, because you somehow make things shine for me, even when you're horrible. You want Ben back. Well, you'll have to deal with that as best you can. And while you're dealing with it, I'll give you something else to think about, something that isn't going to go away. Edie -- I want you back. I was here before the children and I'm here now. . . . And I'm not going away."

Russell wants a second honeymoon, Edie is heartbroken that her nest is now empty. That alone is enough upon which to build a novel, but there's much more here than that. Each of the children has his or her own story, and each of those is as pertinent to contemporary middle-class life as is the story of Edie and Russell.

Ben is smitten with Naomi, who is a notch or two below him on the social ladder and, thus, personifies the class differences that so often arise when people are attracted to each other. Rosa since early adolescence has "negotiated . . . a subversive but successful pathway between intelligence and rebelliousness" and now is having trouble finding a place for herself in a world that still tends to be most comfortable with the conventional.

As for Matt, his romance with Ruth is fraught with complications. It doesn't matter that she's four years older, but it most certainly does matter that she, "a junior head hunter for a firm that specialized in finance directors," has an income "closer to twice his." They share all expenses "as an equal financial commitment on both sides: rent, bills, entertainment, travel," but Matt gradually realizes that he is in more deeply than his earnings will permit: "To match Ruth's present expenditure in their lives and therefore preserve the fragile equilibrium of modern partnership, every penny he earned was already committed."

Matt comes to this realization just as Ruth is "proposing to embark on something she assumed, because she had no reason not to, that he could comfortably join her in" -- the purchase of an apartment valued at 400,000 pounds in the chic section of Bankside with spectacular views and expenses to go with them. After going down his assets and liabilities point by point, knowing full well how much she wants the apartment and how impossible it would be for him to participate in the purchase as an equal partner, he tells her that she must go on without him. She is at once heartbroken and thrilled:

"How could it be that one could feel such heartache and such hope at the same time? How was it that something could feel so right and so wrong simultaneously? And how could one ever know, in these shapeless days of moral codes being so much a matter of personal choice, if one was behaving in the way that one ought to be behaving? She put the heels of her hands up against her temples and closed her eyes. What, anyway, did 'ought' mean anymore?"

Ruth and Matt are up against what a friend of Rosa's calls "this woman and ambition thing," the sense that a woman, "however successful, she's afraid that makes her unlovable." In an e-mail to her friend Laura, Ruth asks: "We praise children now until they can't take failure of the smallest kind, so why can't we praise women for being good at things that aren't traditionally female? Why do women always, always have to be the givers? And if they stop giving, even for a minute, why is there this unspoken accusation that they have somehow surrendered on being truly female?"

While Ruth wrestles with this dilemma, Matt moves back in with his parents. Edie welcomes him back -- once again she can be Mummy! -- but Russell isn't happy at all. "I thought only the royal family continued to live with their parents when adult," he says. "Oh, and Italians." But that is only the beginning. To her astonishment, Edie gets a job as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's "Ghosts" -- the production isn't West End, but London's equivalent of off-Broadway -- and takes under her wing Lazlo, the young man playing Osvald, "all skin and bone and burning passion, and not a penny to his name." She invites him to move into her house, and he accepts. Then Ben and Naomi have a bit of a falling-out, and suddenly the house has five people in it, with another -- Rosa -- longing to join them.

It is Russell's nightmare -- "Sometimes," he says, "I get the feeling that I'm living in one of those unfunny family comedy series on television" -- and Edie's dream, or, at least, so she thinks, until she and the young people finally understand that the old house has changed, that they have changed, that she has another life to live.

It is Ruth who brings the message home to her when, arriving to deliver a piece of important news, she tells Edie: "I think that women after their families have gone are pretty unstoppable. . . . The classic reproach, the one about women promoting themselves at the expense of people who need their care, doesn't apply to you. Not anymore."

That this eye-opening message is delivered to Edie by a woman two decades younger than she comes as something of a shock -- to her if not to the reader -- but it is the truth. As, for that matter, is everything else in this entirely grown-up and entirely believable novel.

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