The Soldier's Wife, By Joanna Trollope

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The Independent Culture

Back from six months in Afghanistan, Major Dan Riley has everything to look forward to. His tour of duty has been successful and he's up for promotion. He has a lovely wife, Alexa, a sweet step-daughter, Isabel and charmingly wilful three-year-old twins. He's the pride and joy of his ex-army grandfather and father. The dog adores him.

The return of the soldier, however, is rarely straightforward. In "the zone" at the Wiltshire camp, the Helmand hero finds it hard to readjust to home life. Clever Alexa with her first-class degree in languages feels frustrated and trapped. Isabel hates her boarding school so starts stealing and running away, there's a problem with one of the twin's eyes, and Alexa has been offered a good teaching job which she knows she can't accept. On top of all that the dog has lumps.

But Dan won't talk to Alexa, either about the horrors he experienced or her domestic worries. There's always some business with his men to be sorted, or he's popping out and propping up best mate Gus whose wife has gone AWOL. Soon everyone from wise old Granddad to the kindly brigadier is doing his bit to stop Dan and Alexa's marriage from imploding.

With her stories about the tensions of middle-class families, Trollope consistently picks women's-page issues. In The Soldier's Wife, she continues to explore the power balance in relationships and whether it's possible to be happy if we subjugate our desires to someone else. What better setting than the army? There's still no real role for the wives who follow the drum, but are just as educated and capable as their husbands. The men may crave the "comforting dictatorship of duties", but will 21st-century women put up with being Stepford wives on the Salisbury Plain?

The novel has a squad of decent people trying to do the right thing. Alexa's girlfriends call each other "babe", offer advice on having a row to clear the air and turn up instinctively at a difficult bath-time to help put the twins to bed. Jack, her overweight male chum, has the "reliability of the best kind of sister in a Jane Austen novel". He's forever ready at the end of a mobile with some tough love.

Trollope is no stylist and the world she creates is about as radical as a Cath Kidston teapot. She's a safe pair of hands, observing keenly the small things which betray us. When Alexa tells her mother how she loves Jack – but not the way you love someone you marry – Elaine looks away. "She appeared to be considering, with discomfort, the nature of the love you might ideally feel for someone you agree to marry."

Trollope seems genuinely to care about her characters and their difficulties. I'm just not sure that I do.