Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope

I love Mum, but I love my hamster more
Click to follow

Edie Boyd is in a state of near-bereavement because her youngest child, Ben, has moved out at 22. Her kind but exasperated husband Russell, a second-rank theatrical agent, wants her to relinquish what he perceives as the "end of a particularly compelling - and urgent - phase of motherhood", and return to him after 20 years of patient waiting. Yet this novel is about the tyranny of choice, and how the modern disease of having too much of it can feel worse than the privations caused by having too little. Again and again, reading how Edie and Russell were able in their impoverished early twenties to buy a shabby four-bedroomed North London house in Highbury, while their hard-working children can't even buy a flat, I winced.

Edie is an actress who has enjoyed "the luxurious simplicity of society approved choice: children first, everything else second". In contrast, Ruth is rejected by Edie's son Matt for "behaving in a way that was not automatically self-deprecating and deferential". The two women eventually change places as Edie undergoes a brief professional renaissance when giving an outstanding performance in Ibsen's Ghosts, while Ruth becomes pregnant. The anguish with which Trollope explores the perennial conflict between career and children feels real and devastating, as some of the dilemmas explored in her previous novels do not.

One by one, all three children are drawn back home just when Edie is at last realising her hunger for the theatre. Tidy, orthodox Matt can't afford to keep up with Ruth, who wants to buy a flat overlooking the Thames; passionate Rosa loses both job and an appalling boyfriend who has left her £5,000 in debt; Ben, the baby of the family, finds that living with his girlfriend's mother is not as easy as he thought. In addition, there is the talented young actor who plays Edie's son, with whom Rosa eventually falls in love.

Each character is associated with a prop which sums up their essence, whether these are Edie's vulgar, rose-painted teapot, Vivien's bridal voile curtains or Russell's worn Turkey carpet, "with a few brave tufts of red and blue and green". The comedy and compassionate affection with which every character is explored is typical, but it is the pain that makes this new novel both memorable and original.

The tragedy of so many wives and mothers is that they are, as Helen Simpson wrote recently in Constitutional, "first wanted and needed, then not wanted and not needed". Though forests the size of the Amazon have been felled to describe the pangs of romantic loss, the subject of maternal loss is relatively unexplored; Trollope quotes the late Alice Thomas Ellis, the earliest chronicler of this territory, when Edie says, "Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters." I can think of nothing that so much deserves this year's Orange Prize, both as a counter to Lionel Shriver's magnificently malign We Need to Talk About Kevin, and because it shows how we must continue to welcome change, even when it drives a knife into the heart.