Joanna Trollope, “The Other Family”

You could say that Joanna Trollope writes the same book over and over again. (I exclude here the historical romances she writes as Caroline Harvey, which are very good of their kind.) You could complain about how they are always about middle-class women running into small-scale problems, but that would be selling Trollope very short. Her books aren’t very ambitious, I guess, but focusing on largely female characters in situations that require emotional growth and adjustment isn’t a small thing. It’s true that I haven’t been thrilled by the last few Trollopes (starting with the 2002 Girl from the South) but The Other Family is excellent.

photo by Nigel Cox of Highgate, the Rossiters' neighborhood

It opens with Chrissie Rossiter and her daughters Tamsin, Dilly and Amy coming back from the hospital where Richie, the paterfamilias, has just died suddenly of a heart attack. Trollope wastes no time presenting the book’s conflict: Richie never married Chrissie, which the girls don’t all know. And Richie left a wife and son in Newcastle, when he and Chrissie became a couple. He never divorced his wife, Margaret. She and her son Scott are the other family of the title.

Again, it’s a hallmark Trollope situation. Richie, a popular singer in the Tony Bennett model, has dominated the lives of Chrissie and the girls. Not until his death does it become obvious that their comfortable life (comfortable economically and emotionally) was also limiting. Or to put it another way, Richie’s death bereaves all of them, but also provides opportunities. I suppose you could call this trite — there’s certainly nothing unexpected about it — but the way Trollope works through her plot is very satisfying. She’s pyschologically acute and  a terrific observer of family life. The scenes that put the four women together, communicating in an intensely female language of gesture and oblique remark, are wonderfully observed. So is a set piece that occurs near the end of the book when Amy, the musical youngest, goes to a folk music performance in Newcastle. It’s an epiphany for her, and feels like a description of an actual performance Trollope attended.

And, yes, The Other Family deals out a nice helping of reassurance. Characters behave unattractively, but only temporarily and under pressure.  Trollope has sympathy for all of them. Endless cups of tea are drunk, everyone ends up better off at the end of the book, and just because we know where we’re going, it doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the same-but-slightly-different voyage. Plus there’s a wonderful portrait of a big, heavy, fluffy cat named Dawson who is bracingly self-absorbed. In Trollope’s world, only cats get away with this kind of behavior. Maybe that’s why I enjoy her books so much.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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