The Other Family, By Joanna Trollope

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The Independent Culture

The plight of a bereaved family whose parents haven't bothered, or consented, to get married is a peculiarly modern dilemma. Chrissie and her three daughters are left in this situation when Chrissie's partner, a successful musician, dies, leaving them high and dry in Highgate.

She has transformed and managed his career for 20 years, but is the victim of the tax law that means only married people can be exempt from death duties. She has no income, and is about to be made homeless. To make matters more painful, he has left his piano, and the rights to his early and most popular songs, to his 66-year-old wife Margaret and son Scott.

Joanna Trollope is the most emotionally intelligent of contemporary British novelists, and, like her illustrious ancestor, one whose devastatingly accurate observations are tempered by a kindliness that draws you into the lives and makes you care for them. Like Amy, the youngest and most appealing of Chrissie's daughters, she is on everybody's side.

One by one, her characters are drawn in a succession of tiny, telling details interwoven with naturalistic conversations. Margaret, the wife Richie dumped for a woman almost half her age, is a tough, wise, wholly admirable woman from Tyneside. Having grown up, like her husband, in poverty with a mother who held the family together by working in the fisheries, she has forged a career for herself as a music agent, is adored by her assistant and ignored by her fat cat Dawson – a gorgeous portrait of an utterly selfish feline.

Her years of nurturing the "tiny hope of Richie's return...like a night light in a coal mine" are relieved by finding he has not forgotten them in his will. For Chrissie, the realisation that despite bearing his children and running his career and home, Richie did not care enough about her to protect her from death duties is compounded by the loss of the piano.

How Amy and Margaret's grown-up lawyer son Scott conspire to deliver the bequest to Newcastle forms the thrust of the plot. Nobody behaves badly, although the two elder daughters, as in a fairytale, are sufficiently spoilt and silly to venture perilously close. Chrissie, who has made life too easy for her lover, even buying her own industrial-diamond ring rather than force the issue of marriage, goes through hell.

Trollope's descriptions of how she takes Tube trains without knowing where she's going, can't eat, drinks too much and eats too little are those of someone who has experienced bereavement. Those undergoing it themselves will recognise every step in the Via Dolorosa that takes sufferers away from those who have not yet lost a loved one, and returns them changed for life.

The Other Family is exactly the kind of novel you wish men in the middle of a mid-life crisis would read, because it shows so clearly how good men do bad things to those they love out of thoughtlessness and selfishness. Sadly, the appalling dust-jacket makes this unlikely, but women of a certain age should buy its bittersweet story in droves. Margaret especially is an inspirational yet believable woman, with her painful self-possession and her honesty. Both Richie's women end up realising that's it's better to stand on their own feet, without bitterness. The question is whether the new generation will too.

Amanda Craig's novel 'Hearts and Minds' is in Abacus paperback

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