Daughters in Law by Joanna Trollope
Published by Doubleday at 14.99. Kindle approx €7.
Reviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner, May 7th 2011.
Joanna Trollope’s sixteenth contemporary novel starts with a wedding. Rachel’s third and final single son is marrying, and she’s feeling unsettled. A true matriarch, she’s, so far, had it easy.
Edward is married to Sigi, from Sweden, so her parents are out of the picture. As for Petra, Ralph’s wife, she’s virtually an orphan, and was loved by Rachel from the time her artist husband Anthony, discovered Petra’s talent.
The new bride, Charlotte, although pretty and sweet, is to prove a lot less malleable. Rachel finds her control slipping and she doesn’t like it.
‘The mother’s mother,’ Charlotte tells her husband Luke, ‘is the first grandmother. That’s how it works.’
Charlotte’s pregnancy causes the first rift, but it’s dreamy Petra who causes the most unrest. The family rocks on its axis. Will they manage to find a satisfactory resolution?
All this is familiar territory to Trollope. She is often dismissed, and her books described as Aga sagas. But whist they are enjoyable, and are perfect for holiday reading, this view is misguided. Trollope writes eloquently, and she has deep insight into the issues she explores.
The characters are wonderful too. They’re believable, and they develop in a satisfyingle way. Her books are generally about female dilemmas, yet her male characters are equally well observed.
Trollope’s special talent, though, is for getting into the minds of children. Nobody who read her ninth novel, Other People’s Children, a cautionary tale about the devastation divorce can bring, could be in any doubt of that. And in this book, her depiction of the solemn nine year old, half Swedish Mariella, is nothing short of masterly. Readers will love her. The scenes with Petra’s small boys are spot on too.
The setting of Suffolk, with its stony beaches and rich bird life is a character in itself. Anthony is famous for his portraits of birds, and Petra shares his passion. The reader feels absorbed into this world.
Trollope has covered many issues in her time. She’s dealt with adoption, and more recently, with inheritance. This one, although principally about the mother-in-law, daughter-in –law dynamic, actually covers much more. Using that issue as a kick off point, Trollope explores a time of change in all her characters’ lives.
Dismantling the various relationships, she writes about the empty nest; about birth order; about power and the loss of it; and about the need to adapt to one’s changing life circumstances.
Whilst Rachel struggles to come to terms with her lack of a role, Petra discovers life is more than about being true to herself. The ice maiden, Sigi, mellows into wisdom, and her husband Edward, learns to share family responsibility.
The characters constantly surprise, and that’s what makes this novel such a satisfying read. It’s one of her best yet. Anyone who still dismisses Trollope as queen of the Aga saga should think again. Read, enjoy, and learn.
© Sue Leonard. 2011.