Sunday 22 October 2017

Skilful cartographer of human heart navigates stormy friendships

Fiction: City of Friends Joanna Trollope, Mantle, €19.99

Author Joanna Trollope
Author Joanna Trollope

Anne cunningham

Joanna Trollope's 20th novel arrives in a flurry and with much media fanfare, and so it should. Often sneered at by her detractors as the "Queen of the Aga saga", and once dismissed by Will Self, who described her as "a lower-middlebrow novelist who has just enough sophistication to be able to convince her readership they are getting an upper-middlebrow product", she is still going strong at 73 years of age.

With her trademark wry humour, she quipped in an interview about her naysayers: "…they've been reviewing me forever, poor things. What is there left to say?"

Other non-flatterers use the word middle in reference to Ms Trollope (pictured inset) as in middle-class, brow/age/England, almost as often as they use the word Aga, but they've simply not kept up. In 2013, she kicked off The Austen Project with a complete rewrite and update of Sense and Sensibility, to huge critical acclaim. She has chaired the Orange and Whitbread awards and been on the judging panels for literary prizes. She was awarded an OBE in 1996, and continues her patronage of countless charities. In between, she continues write novels, hit after hit. And although City of Friends is not her finest work, it will certainly delight her legion of fans.

The novel centres around four middle-class, middle-aged (there we go again!) women, all at the pinnacle of their respective careers and all close friends since college. When one of them, Stacey, loses her job, the repercussions are keenly felt throughout this close-knit group, and even more so when it transpires that one of the group, Gaby, may have been an unwitting contributor to Stacey's dismissal. Meanwhile, Beth and Melissa have their own crises. Beth's much younger partner Claire leaves her abruptly and demands that the house be sold to buy her out, while Melissa's only son Tom decides he wants to spend more time with his father. And his father's daughter by another relationship.

Relationships are, and always have been, the kernel of Trollope's fiction. Those close, intimate, family and best-friend relationships are the ones she has studied most and writes about with such grace and fluency. In this respect, City of Friends is no different from many of her other novels. But the plot is more than a little flimsy and, to this reader, the solution to Stacey's unemployment problem is a tad unlikely. That said, Trollope is too experienced, and possibly too world-weary, to offer her characters any fundamental, ground-breaking, happy-ever-afters. Whatever your opinion of her may be, she writes realistic fiction in a certain groove, and the most one can expect of her endings are hopeful outcomes. City of Friends closes with just that - a small clutch of hopeful outcomes. But the real pleasure in this novel is in Trollope's almost covert observations on what it takes to be a quiet, busy, hard-working feminist in 21st-century London. And it's an utterly exhausting business.

We get a glimpse of what life is like for Melissa, a working single mother of an only child, now a teenager, and also of the endless demands on Stacey, caring for an elderly mother with rapidly-deteriorating dementia. Flimsy plot notwithstanding, City of Friends is destined for success.

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