Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Daughters-in-Law - Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope’s new novel, Daughters-in-Law, begins at the wedding of Luke & Charlotte. Luke is the youngest of the three sons of Anthony & Rachel Brinkley. Anthony is an artist & illustrator, specializing in birds. Rachel has made a home for them all in Suffolk. Eldest son, Edward, is married to Swedish Sigrid & lives in London with their daughter. Second son, Ralph, has always been different. He left a high-flying financial career in Hong Kong to come home & start his own business. Reluctant to settle down, he is now married to Petra, one of Anthony’s former students, & they have two sons.

It soon becomes obvious that Rachel’s place as head of her family of boys is about to change. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she tells Luke that, of course, she will tell her mother first & Luke’s family can be told later. Luke soon becomes aware that marriage has changed his relationship with his parents. Instead of Sunday lunches in Suffolk, Charlotte wants to either visit her mother or invite Luke’s family to their London flat. Rachel’s tactless reaction to the news of the pregnancy is typical of her caring but managing style of mothering. Rachel also engineered Petra’s introduction to Ralph & pushed them into marriage when she fell pregnant. The marriage leads to a move from Ralph’s cottage on the coast, where both are happiest, to a more “suitable” house to bring up children. When Ralph’s business collapses, the dissatisfactions in his marriage come to the surface & Rachel’s interference has serious consequences. Rachel & Anthony send Petra off for a day’s sketching to a bird sanctuary on the coast, thinking that a day on her own will help her to be more realistic about the changes Ralph’s potential new job will bring,

Later Petra bought a cup of tea from the Visitor Centre’s cafe, and took it out to one of the picnic tables on the grass. She unwrapped the foil packets Rachel had given her and found egg-mayonnaise sandwiches and cucumber batons and flapjacks and dried apricots. She spread these out on the table and looked at them. Very delicious. Very thoughtful. The reward for a long morning’s sketching. Except that she hadn’t sketched a thing, she hadn’t even taken one of Anthony’s pencils out of her pocket, she had not done anything except sleep in the warm sand until she was woken by two children stamping past and inadvertently spraying sand in her face.

That passage encapsulates all Rachel’s managing & subtle manipulation. Rachel’s idea of “more realistic”, of course, is agreeing with her view that Ralph’s new job in London will mean moving to a commuter suburb although Petra refuses to leave the coast. Later, when Rachel arrives uninvited to talk to Ralph & Petra, she is very firmly put in her place. She may have done the matchmaking & engineered the wedding but Petra’s compliance is about to come to an end,

Rachel had felt her whole body clench with tension. She had so much to say, so much to point out about practicality and common sense and responsibility and maturity and there was no point in uttering a single syllable of it. She had drunk her tea, and gone to find Kit sitting staring and rapt in front of the television, in order to kiss him goodbye, and had then driven home in an advanced state of agitation, to find Anthony determined not to engage with her either. 
‘We are talking about your son!’ Rachel had shouted. ‘Your son and your daughter-in-law who are declining – no, refusing – to face the practicalities and consequences of how their life will be!’

Every member of the family finds their relationships changing. Sigrid has always felt an outsider in the Brinkley family. Her cool exterior hides deep emotions & she observes the emotional turmoil that results from Charlotte’s pregnancy & Ralph & Petra’s marital troubles with detachment & sympathy. Edward finds himself in the position of older brother organising interviews for Ralph & holding off his mother’s insistence that his place in his birth family is more urgent than his life with his own family. Luke & Charlotte are working out how to be married & realising that marriage involves both their families as well as each other. They have to realign their loyalties. Rachel has to realise that her place at the centre of her family has shifted slightly to one side as other priorities take over. Will she step aside graciously or have to be dragged away kicking & screaming?

I love Joanna Trollope’s novels. I’ve been a fan since I read The Rector’s Wife over 20 years ago. I love her dissection of emotional turning points in relationships. Whether it’s a death in the family, children leaving home or the moment when an age gap suddenly becomes a gulf, she always has something interesting to say about relationships. The solutions she imagines for her characters aren’t always the predictable ones either & that’s what makes her books page turners for me.


  1. I've enjoyed Joanna Trollope's books since The Rector's Wife, too, but I always thought she looked very cold in photographs. The other week, however, I saw her on The Book Show (Sky Arts - can you get it in Australia?) and she was so friendly and funny!

    I must try to get hold of this one, but my finances dictate that it will have to be from the library this time!

  2. I too love Trollope's work and look forward to seeking out this new title. She has a very keen insight into relationships and their complexities.

  3. I too love Joanna Trollope. This is a new one for me which I must look out for!

  4. Penny, I saw JT speak at the melbourne Writers Festival years ago & she was an excellent speaker, very interesting on her life as a writer. I think she was burdened with the Aga Saga tag for a long time but all the imitators have dropped away & she's just known as a contemporary novellist now. I see her as a successor of some of the 30s middlebrow novelists I love. Rose & Mystica, more Trollope fans! I enjoyed this book more than last year's The Other Family but I always look forward to a new one.

  5. I enjoy Joanna Trollope and didn't realise that she had a new one out. I have to say, whilst they are still immensely readable, I don't find her more recent ones as good as the early ones.

  6. Verity, I have to agree with you. I have a real fondness for Rector's Wife, Choir, Men & the Girls, Spanish Lover. I read all of them several times & have my own copies.

  7. I shall just give up if this doesn't get posted, I've tried twice now ... but Joanna is lovely, I've interviewed her and she is a really nice person. I also enjoy her books, but tend to prefer her earlier ones to her later ones, even though they were dubbed Aga Sagas. I have enjoyed Daughters in Law, it's well written, but I just didn't like any of the characters - well, except Anthony (the father) even though he was weak and ineffectual (well, perhaps Joanna didn't mean him to come across like that, but he did to me.)
    Favourite books were The Choir, The Rector's Wife and A Married Man.
    Margaret P

  8. Thanks for persisting Margaret, third time lucky! You're right, her recent books have had less likeable characters but I still love her writing & the way she writes about relationships especially & the whole English middle class milieu. I loved Anthony's life as an artist in DIL & I had some sympathy with Petra until she started messing Steve around.