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Daughters-in-Law, By Joanna Trollope

Cracks show in flat family portrait

In recent years Joanna Trollope's fiction has been rooted in the smart urban enclaves of Hoxton, Hammersmith and Highgate. This latest work, however, returns to the provincial territory of her earlier novels, opening in the summer blaze of an English country wedding. The perfectly judged first chapter sees Anthony Brinkley, a distinguished bird artist, contemplating the silk-swathed behind of the girl about to become his third daughter-in-law. While for Anthony the arrival of a new female in the family is a perk, for his wife, Rachel, next to him in the pew, the emotion is not shared. Anthony can already sense his wife's dismay "escaping like puffs of hot steam through cracks in the earth's crust".

Rachel has devoted 25 years of her life raising three good-looking sons in a beautiful house near the Suffolk coast. With Luke now married off, she should be able to sit back and count her blessings. Even Ralph, her difficult, diffident middle child, has managed to bag himself a wife, a former student of Anthony's. Edward, the eldest, has long been married to Sigrid, a Scandinavian scientist. There are healthy, clever grandchildren, but Rachel, addicted to the adrenalin of mother love, has yet to relinquish her place at the head of the pecking-order .

Trollope has always chosen to write about subjects close to her readers' hearts. Divorce, adoption and adultery have provided the material for a series of elegantly written and astute domestic dramas. Yet this latest novel falls uncharacteristically flat. Rachel and her daughters-in-law are well drawn but don't quite prove the Weldonesque monsters that might have lent a more compelling narrative edge.

One by one, the daughters-in-law take flight as Rachel, in the role of miserable empty-nester, scrabbles to keep control. Mad dashes between London and Aldeburgh ensue as the three sons attempt to wean themselves from a parental bond in which they are also complicit. At one disastrous Sunday lunch, the newlywed Charlotte announces her pregnancy, only to be told by Rachel: "You've only been married ten minutes, couldn't you have waited?"

Given that the family is financially secure, generally loving and in good health, the outrage feels over-egged. The trials of the Brinkleys make for an engaging read but – and this criticism is usually unfairly levelled at Trollope – it adds up to little more than a storm in a very pretty tea-cup.

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