If you’ve sensed a more sinister undertow in Joanna Trollope’s recent work, you are not alone; several of her readers have lately observed that her stories have been growing darker in tone and theme. It’s not an unpleasant evolution. It gave rise last year to the complex and thoughtful The Other Family, in which a middle-aged musician dies suddenly, leaving behind his long-term partner and their three daughters . . . and at the other end of the country, his son and the wife he never got around to divorcing, who has all manner of legal rights conspicuously unavailable to his ‘current’ family.
This kind of splendid, slightly saucy set-up has long been Trollope’s stock in trade, with her stories, centred as they are on the torments of the middle class, once earning the nickname ‘Aga saga’. Though she remains a devotee of the domestic drama and familial interactions in nearly every form, she never seems to be repeating herself: every Trollope adventure is a fresh one.
So to Daughters-in-Law, the title alone perhaps sparking a frisson of anticipation in any woman who’s ever married into a family and wondered how on earth these flawed and fallible individuals could be related to the spouse she loves.
Anthony and Rachel Brinkley are the parents and in-laws – living peaceably and affluently in contemporary Suffolk, they have produced three strapping sons, all now adults. The elder two, Edward and Ralph, are married, to women of whom Rachel is fond; the wives, Sigrid and Petra, are smart and self-possessed but biddable, and have made grandparents of Rachel and Anthony.
As the novel opens, the last son, Luke, is marrying Charlotte, a woman much younger than her sisters-in-law, and beautiful, privileged and utterly in love. Rachel finds herself, as they say, ‘acting out’, unable to quell her fear and hurt as she watches all three sons forming homes of their own, thinking now of their childhood home as simply the place where their parents live. It’s not an un-close family, but even regular contact is not enough for this matriarch, and her misguided desire to redraw the boundaries, and thus reclaim her sons, is almost primitive.
Matters come to a head at a family dinner when, in a grievous display of rage and spite, Rachel fulfills Anthony’s unspoken prediction that her reaction to the third marriage would ultimately become something akin to volcanic.
It might be surmised that it is not only empty-nest syndrome that sparks Rachel’s visceral reaction to the entrance of Charlotte; the ‘loss’ of her children to other women brings into harsh relief the extent of her husband’s affectionate detachment. The spectre of Luke and Charlotte’s mutual adoration may be the last straw for a woman learning that some of the passion she has invested in her sons might have been better directed elsewhere.
Daughters-in-Law, with its slow-burn approach to the familial and its examination of the complexities of relationships within a single family, is some of Trollope’s best work yet. (A particularly absorbing element of the novel is the author’s drawing back of the veil on each marriage.) Long may she linger at the Aga.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewed by Stephanies Jones