Books: Step heroics

Nicolette Jones works out with the family
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Other People's Children

by Joanna Trollope

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

Joanna Trollope's reputation for writing "Aga sagas" suggests to the uninitiated that her novels are cosy and middlebrow. It is true that she writes about the middle classes, that she concentrates on dramas that affect domestic life, and that she has a clarity of expression that makes her deceptively easy to read. But her fiction is far from formulaic, and it is made out of an unflinching observation of circumstances that trouble us profoundly. Trollope never fakes it.

picks up the subject of stepfamilies, holding it in a firm grasp and shaking it out thoroughly to give it a good airing. It considers stepchildren so determined in their protest against a stepmother that they refuse to eat food she has cooked, or to sit on the same lavatory seat as she does (one teenager resolves to "crap in the garden"). It confronts the terrible rivalry between first children and second wives over the father's love, and the emotional impasse this can create for the man. It depicts both the dead ends that stepfamilies find themselves in and the awkward gaps the lucky ones might squeeze through to reach a kind of happiness.

The novel comes down, in the end, on the side of the stepmother, the woman armed only with good intentions and the love of a new husband who is assaulted by possessiveness and lack of cooperation from her stepchildren, as well as (in one of Trollope's examples) financial demands and open hostility from their real mother. It demonstrates too that the stepmother's greatest enemy is the myth of her own wickedness, which sanctions everyone else's bad behaviour towards her.

Although Trollope's characters are all allowed understandable needs, the villain of the piece is a grown-up stepdaughter who sabotages any relationship that threatens her supremacy in her father's life. This chillingly manipulative woman is a fine creation, and one of the reasons why, whether or not the issues of Trollope's novels concern you personally, you cannot but be caught up in the story. Trollope not only writes as if she has seen and suffered all (right down to the cat who sits and waits for someone to leave the lid off the butter dish), but she also handles the plot with a magician's legerdemain, flourishing surprises.

This is an excellent yarn with serious insights. It shows there are good and bad ways to be both real parents and step-parents, and furthermore that pain respects neither class nor wealth. Be warned: a sofa with expensive silk covers will not cushion you from heartache.