BOOK REVIEW / A taste for indigo linen

THE BEST OF FRIENDS Joanna Trollope Bloomsbury £15.99
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The Independent Culture
For anyone who thrills to the ideas of communitarianism or dreams of one day chucking in the urban rat-race and drifting off to some cute rural idyll, Joanna Trollope provides salutary warnings.

In her books, quiet communities of people who really care and share become a kind of hell. Families are the centre of this hell, families that twine and cling and gently destroy one another. In this particular novel - not that it is very different from any of her other novels - we meet two parallel dysfunctional families. The father of one walks out, leaving the abandoned mother to fall in love with the father of the other family, while the confused children batten onto one another in their misery. Throughout these dark times everyone keeps talking brightly, chronicling precisely what they feel in clipped, Enid Blyton-style conversations. "You dumped me," one unnaturally coherent young girl tells her father. "All those years you took photographs of me and got my breakfast and told me things and read to me and paid me my pocket money and made me believe I could rely on you and then you just dumped me."

Through this talking cure Trollope attempts to normalise her characters' miseries. I suppose it is simply up to the reader whether you can buy into the little nuggets of homespun wisdom that, as far as I'm concerned, drop from Trollope's hands like lead balloons: "I don't want to be loved on sufferance," or "if you don't grieve, you didn't love". Her characters soon begin to sound like automata, clicking and spouting clichs. Although Trollope makes some attempt at broadmindedness, she is incredibly coy. She provides what looks like a gay couple, when the runaway father moves in with a young chap. But she makes it very clear that they never go to bed together. And although one of the children is found with a couple of Ecstasy pills, we are persuaded that he has never taken any. This party is strictly for non-inhalers.

And within this tragic morass, Trollope always keeps a spotlight turned on people's rooms and clothes and food. Even in our saddest moments, we are reminded, we cannot escape from the consumerist demands of Good Housekeeping or Period Home. We will drink coffee made in "a real, miniature espresso machine". Our kitchens will have waxed flagstones and elm cupboards. We will wear indigo linen jackets if we have taste; tight, bright leggings if we do not. It is the heavy, suffocating effect of these constant judgements of style and taste that makes Trollope so popular and so reviled. Popular because she thus taps right into what drives our society. Reviled because what many of us most want from literature is for it to provide the antithesis to those demands.

As undisputed queen of the Aga saga, at one point Trollope does have a quick bite at irony. When one broken family put their lovingly restored historic house up for sale, a chic London couple comes to look over it. "No Aga?" they say wonderingly. "We'll have to put one in . . . I have one in Camden Town. It's my dearest friend." You can hear Trollope laughing. It's always the dyed-in-the-wool urbanites who long for the rural idyll.