book reviews: family books

Daughters-in-law by Joanna Trollope (Doubleday)

A woman in possession of three handsome sons must have the potential to be a difficult mother-in-law. Joanna Trollope has covered most permutations of family relationships – stepchildren, adopted children, mistresses, single parents – and now she tackles the age-old musical hall joke – the mother-in-law.

Rachel, a domestic goddess of impulsive nature, and Anthony, a peaceable-natured, famous bird painter, have three sons. Edward, a sensible city type, is married to the inscrutable Swede, Sigrid; Ralph, half hippie, half sharp analyst, is married to the mysterious flower child Petra; and Luke, a trendy designer in the East End, has just wed Charlotte, who is a right little madam.

There’s plenty of potential for minor tension, but it’s only when Petra refuses to play the game that the whole family unit becomes destabilised. For Petra is more daughter than daughter-in-law – an impoverished but talented student of Anthony’s, they produced her, like a rabbit out of a hat, as a bride for their trickiest son.

Joanna Trollope writes superbly about the way minor hurts and imperfections threaten the stability of relationships. This novel, her 17th, is one of her best and most substantial for years; with her talent for getting inside her characters’ heads and making you care for them, she has produced a truly compelling read.

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The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape)

Unlike Joanna Trollope, queen of the Aga saga, Tessa Hadley, a great new discovery for me, is relatively unknown; like Trollope, she writes convincingly and perspicaciously about relationships.
In her fifth book, The London Train, she describes how Paul, a writer who has just lost his mother, becomes torn between his second family in comfortable, rural Wales and his 19-year-old daughter Pia, who is out of her depth in a tangled relationship with a Polish lover in a stifling, sordid London flat.

On his ever-increasing journeys by train to London, Paul encounters Cora, who is travelling in the opposite direction. She has left a seemingly disappointing husband in London and has decided to renovate her late mother’s house in Cardiff and make a life here. Obviously, there is a connection between the two, the discovery of which is the driving force of the book.

I have just one gripe, and it has been picked up by other reviewers. Miss Hadley, a teacher of creative writing at Bath University, eschews the convention of quote marks to denote speech – instead, she employs a baffling range of punctuation to denote that someone is speaking. Perhaps the idea is to make the reader concentrate, but it seems a pretentious device.

However, it didn’t stop me buying another of her books, The Master Bedroom,; a satisfying read, this also features a woman’s return to her mother’s home in Cardiff, which has ramifications she could never have envisaged.

All The Hopeful Lovers by William Nicholson (Quercus)

Another welcome discovery, William Nicholson wrote the script for the stage play of Shadowlands and, it turns out, some highly readable novels, including the precursor to this one, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, which comes recommended.

The book opens with a fluffy conversation between Belinda and her friend Laura, in which the former confesses that her marriage has become the teeniest bit boring and she has started to fantasise about Kenny, a boy she kissed at the age of 17.

When she finds out that her cosy, mild, plastic surgeon husband Tom has been having an affair of a surprisingly passionate nature with his undemanding colleague, Meg, she decides to track down Kenny, with hugely comic results. If this sounds predictable and uninspiring, stick with it.

Everyone else in Belinda’s orbit has a lot going on in their lives, too, from her beautiful, spoilt, matchmaking daughter Chloe, to Meg and her plumber, Matt, to Laura’s children, lovesick Jack and Carrie, who strikes up a friendship with an irascible, elderly painter. Over the course of a week, all their lives will change.

It may not sound an original plot, and it’s an unusual book for a man to write, but he has written it so beautifully, fluently and sensitively with characters that you will really care about, that it deserves to be a hit.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (Jonathan Cape)

The dysfunctional family in this tale of corruption, guilt and a heroic race for justice are united by the spoils from the 300-year-old family bank, Tubal & Co, but little else.

Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal lives in pointless splendour in the south of France, pointless because he has been paralysed by a stroke and his life is run by his sinister secretary Estelle, whose only desire in life is to be a part of the Tubal family.

Back in London, his beautiful wife Fleur is conducting an affair with her fitness instructor and his feckless heir Simon is in Africa. Julian, his second son, is so stressed that he talks to his childhood pony in his sleep.

Julian’s nervousness is justified; he and his chief executive and tennis partner, the more pragmatic Nigel, have squandered the hedge fund of the ancient, trusted bank and plundered the charitable trust to pay for it – hence the book’s title. They are desperately trying to sell the bank, to a shrewd American, before anyone finds out.

Unbeknownst to them, an unlikely trio in Cornwall are on their case. Fleur’s impecunious ex-husband and bard, Artair McLeod, has not received his annual pay-off from Sir Harry; Melissa, a 20-year-old cub reporter in too-tight M & S suits, has attracted a surprise informant through her daffy blogs about cupcakes; and her louche editor, ill-used by the Maxwell empire, wants one last hurrah.
Every book Justin Cartwright produces is different and wonderful, and this is no exception. It’s perhaps faster-paced than normal, but the characters are as well drawn as ever and it’s very funny. The discerning already know he’s a great writer; this, though, may be the best-seller that takes him to a wider audience.  

More Than You Can Say by Paul Torday (Orion)

The only family connection in this book is that the main protagonist, Richard Gaunt, is estranged from his, his time as an Afghanistan veteran rendering him unable to adjust to civilian life. He has also split up from his girlfriend, thrown his mobile phone into the river, and is short of money.
He lurches into a drinking and gambling den, and, in the early hours, accepts a bet to walk to Oxford by lunchtime. On the way, he is kidnapped because an oily customer called Mr Khan wants to pay him £10,000 to go through an arranged marriage to an Afghan girl.

After this jerky, surreal start, the story settles down. We learn more about Richard’s Afghanistan tour and his difficulty in readjusting. This is told convincingly, especially the moment he flips when a woman insensitively criticises the Afghan war.

Meanwhile, his mysterious new wife, Adeena, having treated him frostily at the marriage service, turns to him for support. Richard feels protective, but he becomes torn between his growing affection for Adeena and obvious doubts about her real background.

This is a topical, easy-to-read tale with a gripping, heart-breaking climax, but, although Paul Torday has picked grim subjects before – alcoholism, mental illness – it lacks the gentle humour and rural flavour of previous books. Fans – and I am one – may be a little disappointed.