Second Honeymoon, by Joanna Trollope

Mother of all battles
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Anthony Trollope loved to challenge a reader's moral assumptions, to invite them to look beneath the surface of a situation before making a snap judgement. His modern namesake, Joanna Trollope, shares this fascination with the received wisdom, and the moral complexities that lie beneath the stereotypes.

In Marrying the Mistress, she took the well-worn scenario of the middle-aged man dumping his wife for a younger woman. Most of us have an opinion about this situation, and Trollope is as interested in dramatising our collective prejudices as she is in overturning them. We might have assumed that the man was an ungrateful swine and his faithful wife a kicked spaniel - but by the end, we'd all have dumped the old bag. Trollope is that persuasive.

Her new novel, Second Honeymoon, centres around another very familiar life crisis - she could as easily have called it "Empty Nest". It opens with a distraught mother in the wreckage of her son's bedroom. Her youngest child has left home, and taken her whole identity with him.

In considering that identity, however, Trollope immediately puts her finger on a very raw female nerve. A mother's love is sacred, right? Her aching need to nurture her nestlings is entirely selfless, right? Edie, the distraught mother, thinks her husband is utterly heartless. "He hasn't died," says Russell, "He's gone to Walthamstow."

Russell, who works as a theatrical agent, is rather pleased that their three kids are grown-up and out of their hair. He is looking forward to having his beloved wife to himself. "I was here before the children," he says, "And I'm here now." He is amazingly patient with the maddening Edie, and he tries hard to understand her anguish. He knows, he says, that she is mourning "the end of a particularly compelling - and urgent - phase of motherhood. And it's very hard to adjust to."

Edie replies, "I don't want to adjust." Now that she has lost the bliss of being necessary to so many people, she has to face the fact that motherhood can be "a seemly excuse for not risking failure or disappointment". She is an actress, but she more or less shelved her career when she started breeding. She does not want to work now - she only wants her 22-year-old baby to come home.

Unexpectedly, however (and with beautiful irony), Edie is cast as Mrs Alving, in a production of Ibsen's Ghosts. And the actor playing her doomed son is a hungry and needy youngster straight out of RADA. Edie's mothering impulses are satisfied with almost shocking ease.

Meanwhile, the three children are struggling with the perils of young adulthood. Rosa has run up huge debts, thanks to a useless ex-boyfriend, and her life crashes when she loses her job. She asks her father if she can come home - and Russell dares to turn her down. This action brands him, in the eyes of most female characters, as a selfish baby who won't share Mum's attention.

And it does Russell no good, because his children are climbing back into his house through every door and window. Matt has left his girlfriend because she earns more than he does. Ben is getting tired of living with his girlfriend's domineering mother. It is only natural that they should scurry for the shelter of home. It soon becomes clear, however, that childhood has a sell-by date. This novel is utterly absorbing, constantly surprising, and often extremely funny.

Kate Saunders's 'Bachelor Boys' is published by Arrow