Book World: Reeve Lindbergh reviews 'The Other Family' by Joanna Trollope

By Reeve Lindbergh
Saturday, April 17, 2010


By Joanna Trollope

Touchstone. 321 pp. Paperback, $15

When someone in a family dies, the sense of loss is multiplied by the number of relatives left behind. Each of them feels the absence of a different person: a husband, a father, a brother, a son. But what if the deceased held a primary place in more than one family? What happens when the relationships among the survivors are complicated by abandonment, in one instance, and by the long-hidden secret of illegitimacy, in the other? How do these people negotiate with one another to share the complex legacy of the departed?

Joanna Trollope's skillfully constructed and beautifully written novels of family life have earned her a devoted audience for decades. Her new book, "The Other Family," is the story of two families firmly divided yet irrevocably connected by the man who was the biological father in both households, famous British pianist Richie Rossiter.

The book begins on the day of Rossiter's unexpected death. His three daughters, Tamsin, Dilly and Amy, and their mother, Chrissie, who has been his business manager and his life partner for 23 years, return from the hospital devastated. The first shock is accompanied by the dazed recognition of daily intimacies lost: "There were still six pillows on the bed, and his reading glasses were on top of the pile of books he never finished, and there were his slippers, and a half-drunk glass of water."

Later comes the realization that among the people who should be notified of Richie's death are his first wife, Margaret, and her adult son, Scott, who was 14 when Richie left them both in Newcastle for a new life with Chrissie. Yet he never divorced Margaret, never married Chrissie, never entirely let go of his roots in the North. When it is revealed that Rossiter remembered his first family significantly in his will, the women and children in his life must confront their feelings about him, about one another and, ultimately, about themselves.

Trollope is a quietly brilliant, mesmerizing storyteller. Her readers are fully engaged from the first paragraph of each book to its last sentence, captured by the finely rendered details of the characters' lives and caught up in their struggles. Trollope writes with equal ease about television personalities and academics ("The Men and the Girls"), about hard-pressed farm families ("Next of Kin") or, in the spirit of her own ancestor, Anthony Trollope, about church communities reverberating with ecclesiastical concerns and machinations ("The Choir").

Among the most appealing elements in Trollope's novels are the unforeseen compatibilities. In "Friday Nights," for instance, a retired National Health Service administrator, set in her ways, becomes a good friend to a homeless would-be disc jockey. In "The Other Family," Scott, who has never forgiven his father for leaving his mother, grows increasingly fond of his half sister, Amy, the youngest daughter in his father's new family. Trollope tests our assumptions about human behavior in times of crisis and invites her characters to meet enormous changes in their lives open-heartedly so that they may learn what's truly important.

Alive or dead, Richie Rossiter is both the treasure and the burden in each of his two families. Margaret has never come to terms with her husband's leaving her, while Chrissie couldn't understand why Richie wouldn't marry her. Because Chrissie was never officially his wife, she is not legally his widow. Such an arrangement complicates the probate process and makes Chrissie deeply resentful. She will not speak to Margaret at the funeral, and she feels betrayed by her daughter's attempt to make contact with Scott, even when Richie's will makes it clear that contact must be made.

Over time, the members of these families extricate themselves from their delusions and the paralysis induced by immersion in the past. The questions cease to be about possession: Who owns this death, this grief, this legacy? Their focus turns instead toward what comes next. What can each of these people do, who can they be and what can they experience now that Richie is no longer central to their lives? The answers, Trollope shows us once again, come with some necessary sadness, a healthy measure of self-evaluation and, finally, with the gift of extraordinary freedom.

Lindbergh has written a number of books for children and adults, most recently, "Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age and Other Unexpected Adventures."

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