I always enjoy Joanna Trollope’s books, though I can’t usually tell them apart retrospectively. Is that a bad thing? It didn’t used to be. I imagine Trollope’s heyday featured legions of female readers — of a certain age, naturally — reflexively buying and enjoying “the new Joanna Trollope.”
But the book business has changed, as I never cease noticing, and moderately well-known writers like Trollope have gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle. Her books now lack that essential quality, “discoverability.” Which is a horrible word, but useful, since it stands for something we writers didn’t used to worry about: the potential for a book to appear on a reader’s radar. I would have thought that Trollope had retained legions of loyal readers even in the US, but I’m not sure that’s true since even I, a loyal fan, stumble over them by accident. (So much for Amazon’s algorithms.)
I was a little bit apprehensive about The Soldier’s Wife; afraid it might be more of a polemic than a novel. And Trollope obviously did do a lot of research about family issues in the military. But I should have trusted in her ability to transform research into a fictional world, and above all to create believable characters. So Alexa Riley’s apprehension about her husband Major Dan Riley’s return from deployment in Afghanistan is utterly convincing, as is Dan’s disorientation. So are the wives on the base, so are Dan’s commanding officers and colleagues. Trollope has always had a special gift for writing about children, and the three-year-old twins, Flora and Tassy, are practically scene-stealers.
Trollope’s perennial source of conflict is the differing needs and desires of her appealing characters. In The Soldier’s Wife, as you’d expect, the stresses of Army life are laid out in detail: the impermanence, the lack of control, the rigid hierarchy, the old-fashioned assumption that a military wife must subordinate her career aims to her husband’s. Dan, returning from the violence and unpredictability of Helmand Province, is jumpy and preoccupied. Alexa, who loves him, is overwhelmed and resentful. Dan is a good officer, likely to be promoted, and the Army is his identity. Alexa’s thirteen-year-old daughter Isabel, from a previous marriage, precipitates much of the action by running away from a despised boarding school. Maybe the resolution feels a little bit rushed. Maybe if you’re not a total Trollope fan, you’ll feel the book is formulaic. I still found it very absorbing.
And do admit: aren’t you curious to see what Trollope is going to make of Sense and Sensibility?