Review: Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope
Over time, the novels of Joanna Trollope, always less cosy than their belittling soubriquet of Aga Saga suggested, have been growing steadily darker. Trollope's writing, infallibly elegant, seems to have become tinged with pessimism about the innate selfishness and solitariness of the individual.
Her new novel looks initially like The Mixture As Before. Anthony, an artist, and Rachel, an assiduous and somewhat invasive mater- familias, live in a splendid family home near the Suffolk coast. There they have raised three gratifyingly handsome and successful boys, Edward, Ralph and Luke.
Ralph, the second boy, is slightly less gratifying than the other two, being moody, aloof and difficult. Still, he has found himself a lovely wife, Petra, a waiflike former student of Anthony. Edward, the eldest, is married to Sigrid, a coolly glamorous Swedish scientist. There are grandchildren.
It is, in short, a triumphantly successful family life, and the narrative begins at a moment of crowning glory: the wedding of the youngest son, Luke. As the ceremony proceeds, Anthony glances down at his wife and "wondered how her primitive and unavoidable reaction to yielding a third son to another woman would manifest itself ... escaping like puffs of hot steam through cracks in the earth's crust".
Hot steam, it turns out, is the least of it. Rachel reacts to her empty nest like a woman possessed, alienating her daughters-in-law to the point of making them loathe her, and/or damaging their marriages. She is not, however, the villainess of this piece. For what Trollope's narrative inexorably reveals is the fierce selfishness and will to power of every character.
On the whole her men are characterised by a certain fuddled passivity. The women, beneath their gloss of privilege, are monsters. If Rachel's rage and misery at losing power over her sons brings to mind Volumnia,the atrocious mother of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Trollope makes us see that her daughters-in-law will eventually resemble her.
All this lies beneath the sparkling, well-groomed surface of a novel which could quite easily be read as a light diversion for an idle afternoon. But look more closely and something as grim as Greek tragedy is played out around the cosy family dinner table.
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