BOOK REVIEW / And Juliet is the sun worshipper: 'A Spanish Lover' - Joanna Trollope: Bloomsbury, 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THIS book is about lurv, that troubling human condition first identified by Woody Allen. It certainly isn't love in any of its romantic or erotic guises. These are not people experiencing feelings, but characters who have relationships and a compulsion to talk them through.

How about this little lot: Robert and William are worried about Lizzie; Lizzie and Barbara are, for different reasons, jealous of Frances; Robert and Lizzie and William and Barbara are all, again for different reasons, resentful of each other?

This tangled litany inspires in someone called Juliet 'a deep thankfulness for not being involved in family life'. What it is likely to inspire in others is irritation.

If the path of true love never runs smoothly, then the road to lurv is strewn with added pitfalls. All but the most stout- hearted of readers are likely to trip over the strings of alliterative adjectives that soon litter both sides of the continent, not to mention assorted stereotypes and cliches.

It is not that her characters speak in romantic banalities - although the first kiss, when it finally occurs, is so steeped in such phrases that it is more risible than romantic - but that the content and structure are a working expression of cliche.

There are these twins, Lizzie and Frances: plenty of scope for contrasting the 'good' twin who is a wife, mother and artist with the 'bad' twin who has a career, a flat but no man. They are in their thirties, so cue all the other thirtysomething issues: marriage, divorce, careers and parenthood from that pivotal state where you can be parent and child simultaneously. Sigh]

Then the charmingly enigmatic twin upsets the status quo by nipping over to Spain, falling for a married Catholic Spaniard and having his baby against his wishes. Naturally, she has been unable to fall in love on English soil. But all her inhibitions and intelligent speech patterns fall away once she is placed in a sunny position, well watered and courted by a dark, troubled man who says little but means much.

She thus succumbs to the great abroad, one of her few remaining fears curiously being that as a European male, Luis will want to choose her clothes. She has by now, of course, shed the muted shades of an English rose and blossomed into highly coloured scarves.

She does nothing lightly, whether it is bedecking her sun-hat with floating chiffon or chucking away the Pill. She agonises, she telephones, she twists everyone else into emotional turmoil. We know she is a thinking woman and that all her dilemmas are of great moment, because Trollope gives us plenty of reassuring nudges. Along the European highway to lurv we are taken on some pointless pedagogical diversions, signposted A Short History of the Spanish Civil War, Understanding the Economic Recession and the Pros and Cons of the National Curriculum. The doings of Frances, Lizzie et al share page space with Simone de Beauvoir and Franco, so it must be all right, in spite of the picture postcard cover and that title.

For the biggest cliche is Spain itself: mysterious foreignness as the essential setting for love. Cathy and Heathcliff were only contending with love, so the Yorkshire moors were good enough for them. It is almost obligatory for between-the-sheets gymnasts of more obvious pulp fiction to bed down in suitably shallow California. But lurv fanatics require abroad, European style, to whet their appetites.

Trollope belongs to that school of popular novelists who are so fiendishly successful because they spell out the expected response. Their titles borrow from the shock/horror/drama approach of tabloid newspapers, which assume that no one will recognise a tragedy unless it is well signposted. In fact, although we are so pointedly offered A Spanish Lover, that is precisely what doesn't materialise in any real sense. But then, that's lurv for you.