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book review: fiction

Joanna TrollopeDavid Hartley / Rex Features

I wouldn't blame you if you decided to judge a book like Joanna Trollope's Daughters-in-Law by its cover: the curvy hip swathed in wedding-day white, the French-manicured hand weighed down by a doorknob of a diamond. All signs point to froth, which perhaps is not your thing.

But Trollope's 16th novel is more than just a clever display of talent for juicy plotlines. The author's keen observances of life are legendary, and in Daughters-in-Law, she shares them with utter rightness. There were moments I wanted to put the book down and let the so-satisfying taste of her perceptions linger. Except I couldn't, of course, because I had to know what happened next. (This is why Trollope's books are such a treat - as in 1982 Latour with Gruyere des Alpages, not buttercream cupcakes with milk.)

Daughters-in-Law begins, aptly, with the wedding of Anthony and Rachel Brinkley's youngest son. Anthony is a successful painter of birds, Rachel the matriarch of their three-son family, whom she raised in an inviting coastal homestead. During the ceremony, Luke exudes "that raw and possessive male pride that gives wedding days such an edge." (Zing!) Later, when Luke takes the fetching Charlotte home to Arnold Circus, the newlyweds have a picnic in the "empty, dusty flat Luke just signed the lease on," and Charlotte feels "the future unrolling before her like a fairground ride, sparkling with lights." (Do you remember yourself, freshly married, in an apartment somewhere in the city, feeling just that way? Ding!)

There's also Edward, the eldest, married to an aloof foreigner named Sigrid. When the two wed on a Swedish archipelago island, Rachel and Anthony "had eaten crayfish afterwards, mountains and mountains of crayfish, and aquavit had flowed like a fatal river, and it never got dark." Later, they held hands, and Rachel said, "Some situations are just too foreign to react to, aren't they?"

In this efficiently relayed scene, the reader is shown exactly who these two are. Rachel and Anthony don't say it, but they prefer their more agreeable daughter-in-law, Petra, wife of their middle-born and slightly wayward son, Ralph. Ralph and Petra were married in the homestead garden; everyone remembers that Petra, disarmingly, took off her shoes. This daughter-in-law comes over often with her two little boys, and the rambling home feels alive again.

Charlotte, meanwhile, has become pregnant with scandalous speed and is determined that she and Luke shall carve their own path. Which seems harmless enough.

Until the mundane cruelties of life have a ripple effect and each family member falters in his or her own way. (Except Anthony, who is, inexplicably, flat.) Through it all, Trollope doesn't take sides. When Rachel rages fruitlessly against her empty nest and attempts through both passive aggressiveness and aggressive aggressiveness to get her daughters-in-law to do her bidding, you see that she ultimately means no harm. Mother is her role in life. With no children coming home to her, she fears redundancy.

When the daughters-in-law flex their emotional muscles in quick succession, it's easy to remember, for this writer, at least, real-life moments of irrational possessiveness, of wanting to prove your new husband is yours, of the primal urge to mark your turf, or cook the Christmas turkey yourself this year.

Trollope once said, "Writers aren't there to tell you what to think. They are there to beckon you into a book and join them in the thinking." Regardless of who you are, you're likely to find a place in this book where you'll stop and think, "Ah, yes. Exactly." And also, you will think. Before you turn the page greedily and end up staying up too late, immersed in the elegantly salacious writing of the grand dame of getting it right.

Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski is a Toronto writer, and a perfect daughter-in-law.