Joanna Trollope, “The Soldier’s Wife”

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.”

Entrance to Horne Barracks, Larkhill, England; photo Trish Steel. A world apart.

Entrance to Horne Barracks, Larkhill, England; photo Trish Steel. A world apart.

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?

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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5 Responses to Joanna Trollope, “The Soldier’s Wife”

  1. FictionFan says:

    Terrified rather than curious! Marianne with an iPhone? I don’t think I can stand it…

  2. Alex says:

    Your post made me realise that I haven’t read any of Trollope’s books for years. I think I read about the first half a dozen and then somehow I forgot her. I would imagine I have quite a backlog to catch up on.

  3. carolwallace says:

    You do, Alex, and they’re all pretty reliable, but I have to admit the earliest ones still seem best to me. I must have read “The Choir” four times. Do you know her historical novels, or the ones she wrote as Caroline Harvey? Really delicious escape reading.

  4. Pingback: Anne de Courcy, “The Fishing Fleet” | Book Group of One

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