Daughters-in-Law, By Joanna Trollope

Red velvet cupcakes and sparrow bones cannot fill an empty nest

Reviewed,Oliver Marre
Sunday 27 March 2011 02:00 BST

Joanna Trollope has written 17 novels about contemporary middle-class life, and it should be no surprise that her descriptions of comfortable country houses and dutiful wives who hide their recently purchased fripperies in Daunt bookshop bags are now fine-tuned. She brings her craft up to date in Daughters-in-Law by mentioning red velvet cupcakes and the modish nightclub Mahiki, and makes much of the fact that life is so much more expensive for today's young families than it was for the baby-boomers.

Anthony Brinkley, an artist who specialises in birds, and his wife, Rachel, have brought up their three sons – as their generation could – in the gentility of a colourful, scruffy house in Suffolk. The eldest son, Edward, now works in a bank in London and is married to a Scandinavian scientist named Sigrid, with whom he has a precocious only child. Luke lives in east London and is a graphic designer, recently married to a pretty English girl named Charlotte, whose short skirts attract everyone's attention. And Ralph – the clever, sensitive, difficult one – lives in a cottage on the coast, not far from his parents, with his hippy wife, Petra (named after the dog on Blue Peter, as she points out, not the place in Jordan).

The novel tells of various minor crises in each of these marriages. Its most interesting narrative is that of Rachel's struggle to cope when her sons move away, which leads her to alienate everyone – even gentle Anthony, who retreats to his garden studio to sketch a sparrow skeleton with a soft-lead pencil. When confronted with an empty nest, it is easier to engage with the fragility of bird bones than human emotions.

Rachel's storyline also provides the novel's dramatic peak, a catastrophic Sunday lunch when she accidentally says what she is thinking out loud to Charlotte, who has just announced that she is pregnant. ("You've only been married ten minutes. Couldn't you have waited?")

Trollope is best at describing the English. There are moments when it is unfortunately evident that her foreign characters adhere to national stereotypes. It is most obvious in Sigrid, because she is central to the story: being Swedish, she is blonde, favours knee-high boots and clean lines in her interior design, but beyond that, she remains a mystery. Sigrid is aware of how her foreignness creates a block from her English parents-in-law, but the problem is that she seems equally foreign to her creator. Another example is Marco, a flirtatious Italian coffee salesman, "whose English had hardly improved in 30 years of speaking it".

Two outsiders, like the Greek gods, are granted special status in the Brinkley saga, however. These are Sigrid's Swedish mother, a doctor who turns out to be the wisest parent in the book, and Steve, a manual labourer who comes close to having an affair with Petra. Steve sometimes looks as if he is going to turn into a noble savage, but is saved from caricature by seeing the truth about Petra, completely overlooked by the well-meaning but patronising Brinkleys, and then telling it to her with some force.

Daughters-in-Law is most successful in its set-pieces. The vicar's sermon at Luke's wedding to Charlotte at the beginning of the book is perfectly judged, as is Ralph's resignation from his merchant bank in Singapore. At these moments, Trollope uses her undoubtedly brilliant observational powers to illuminate brightly the absurdities of modern English life.

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