Mere paragraphs into Joanna Trollope's latest book, The Other Family, I was overtaken by a rare and overwhelming sense of nosiness: I couldn't wait to see how these folks dealt with their problems.
The Other Family is the story of what happens when one man dies, leaving behind two families and a startling will. No doubt this situation, and variations on it, play out all the time. What is engrossing about this novel is not so much the circumstance as the responses to it: the actions and emotions of a thoroughly realistic and engaging group of characters.
Richie Rossiter is an aging crooner with a shrinking yet substantial fan base. He lives in London with Chrissie, his beautiful, common-law wife, 20 years his junior. Chrissie has been managing his career for 25 years, ever since they embarked on the affair that demolished his marriage. Only Richie never legally ended his marriage. Even after raising three daughters with Chrissie, he has refused to propose.
Chrissie has been comforting herself with the knowledge that he hardly thinks of his wife and their son. But when Richie dies suddenly of a heart attack, she learns the truth. Richie has left his first family the lion's share of his musical estate, which includes a beautiful Steinway piano, his prized possession.
The novel brilliantly explores the fallout of Richie's will. In Chrissie, and Margaret, his legal wife, Trollope gives us a study of North and South: 60-something Margaret still lives in the North England city of Newcastle, where she and Richie grew up with simple values and a strong sense of community. While both women have careers representing artistic talent, Chrissie relishes the status and Margaret wants only success and self-reliance. Chrissie is the great pretender, purchasing a wedding band and a flashy diamond so she can appear legally married. Margaret still wears the strand of pearls Richie once gave her as a gift.
The Mrs. Rossiters are just two of several compelling characters. There is Margaret's son Scott, a successful lawyer, who seems unable to build meaningful relationships. He lives like a university student amid dirty laundry and empty take-out boxes. There are Chrissie's two eldest daughters, who are loving but spoiled. They refuse to grasp that their lifestyles must change. They lash out at their younger sister, Amy, who strikes up a friendship with Scott. Amy, who is musical like her father, will not be pushed around. She insists on doing the right thing and on learning more about the father she has cruelly lost.
Indeed, all characters - including Margaret's bland assistant and Dawson, her tabby cat - are utterly riveting. What's more, Trollope's characters are not memorable because they are outrageous or odd or extraordinary; they are memorable for the paradoxical reason that we find them so familiar.
The moody portrait of the North English landscape; the ghostly depiction of floating fog; Scott's panoramic view of the bridge over the Tyne; all prove Trollope's powers of description. But she keeps it low-key, refusing to indulge herself, or the reader, with showy displays of prose. Everything is done in the service of her characters, who are often frightened, stuck in their ways, shy or just plain wrong, and who are forced to grow up like the rest of us - because they haven't any choice.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.