Did I dream this? Wasn’t there a moment when Joanna Trollope’s books were best-sellers in the U.S.? I’ve certainly bought most of them, loaned them to friends, re-read them, enjoyed them mightily. So I was startled to find that Daughters-in-Law more or less sneaked into print in the U.S. with only a paperback edition, now remaindered. I can’t figure this out. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps Trollope’s genteel English fiction feels retro and irrelevant to a mainstream audience? If that’s the case, the books should be repackaged, because they have a great deal of the charm that enchants us in some of the between-the-wars fiction that Persephone or Virago publish so persuasively.
I need to make plain that I’m perfectly happy with gentility. Trollope’s characters almost always know where the next meal is coming from. They have jobs and cars and futures. Actually Trollope is one of those writers — like Maeve Binchy or Rosamunde Pilcher — who make domestic arrangements sound immensely appealing, and that, for me, is part of the pleasure of her books. But it would be nothing without her characters. Here, the couple at the core of the novel are Anthony and Rachel Brinkley, parents of three grown sons. The tale opens at the wedding of the youngest, Luke. It’s a testament to Trollope’s professionalism that this scene introduces all of the players without confusing or boring us. Luke is marrying the spoiled beauty Charlotte. The other couples are banker Edward and his Swedish wife Sigrid, and brilliant but difficult Ralph, with his Bohemian wife Petra. I’ve had to reduce them to fit them in, but these are complicated, believable, attractive characters that I was happy to spend time with.
As for the plot? Well, they all stop getting along for a while. I’ll admit this is pretty standard for Trollope. She sets up her characters, subjects them to emotional strain, they adjust and move on, sometimes in new configurations. Pretty much like most of us, I’d bet. What gave Daughters-in-Law special force for me was its elegiac quality. Trollope is in her late sixties, and the Brinkleys are grandparents. There’s a distinct sense of passing the baton in this book: the center of emotional gravity shifts from the parents’ house to the homes of the sons, not always an easy transition. Rachel, in particular, suffers as a demi-tiger mother, now obsolete.
But I was especially moved by a passage toward the end when the father Anthony Brinkley is in his studio. A bird painter all his life, he is contemplating the dozens of winged skeletons that dangle from his rafters. Rachel wants them removed, saying they are gloomy, but Anthony resists:
They are interesting, every one, and valid. They represented a journey for me, my journey…. I can, with this hand and this brain, translate what I see in such a way that other people can see it too. I can make birds live on paper. And these old bird bones… were part of that process, part of the looking and looking, until you really understand how something works and can then reproduce it in a way, now, that I don’t even have to think about.”
Tell me that’s not one kind of artist, using another kind of artist to ruminate about the nature of creation.What’s retro or irrelevant about that?