Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance of Being Parsley

Magazine article The Spectator

The Importance of Being Parsley

Article excerpt


by Joanna Trollope

Bloomsbury, L16.99, pp. 279

Behind this book is a Good Idea. Nothing wrong with that: other novels have been successfully based on a writer's discovery of a Good Idea, like the dramatic potential of slavery or the effect of further education on the Victorian rural poor. It is just that at some point you do need to become more interested in the characters, and in what happens to them, than in the Good Idea. That should fall away like the armature around a Saturn Five. And here it doesn't.

Joanna Trollope's Good Idea is the prediction that by the year 2010 there will be more step-families in Britain than families of the other sort, as presumably we shall have to call them. Miss Trollope's publicists call them `birth-families', a construction which for some reason reminds me of Himmler and his interest in eugenics. So out go stepmothers and stepfathers as the reliable villains they were in fiction from fairy tales to Dickens. They will apparently be the norm, and part of a network of relationships, of stepchildren, ex-spouses and new ones, more complicated than a Habsburg family tree.

This, of course, is good news for jobbing builders, but think how much more so it is for novelists. With the exception of war or a snow-bound hotel there can be no quicker way of assembling a large and disparate cast, or of exploiting its tensions. The newfamily Britain will be the equivalent to novelists of the Oklahoma land rush, and already way out in front is Joanna Trollope.

First there is Matthew, who is divorced from Nadine and already has three children when he marries Josie, who has been married to Tom and has one child. Tom was a widower when she married him, with two grown-up children. Enter Elizabeth Brown, unmarried and a civil servant, who takes up with Tom. She has a father, an antiquarian bookseller, with a tom-cat called Basil who plays little part in the merry-go-round, being the only member of the cast to have been neutered.

Nadine resents the new wife, and gets her children to resent both the new wife and their new stepbrother. Tom's grown-up daughter, who has been dumped by Neil who doesn't appear, resents Elizabeth Brown when Tom decides to marry her. Basil, the one character with whom I identified, resents nobody.

With such a large cast the author is at some pains to distinguish them from each other, which she does by giving you a great deal of facts about each in turn. Nadine is beautiful, she is also barking. She is quite clearly barking because of her politics and her indifference to her kitchen. Sometimes the two come together, as when Nadine pours herself a cup of instant coffee:

It tasted strange, sweet but faintly mouldy, as almost everything had tasted during those uncomfortable but exhilarating months in the women's protest camp in Suffolk.

With sex off-stage throughout, kitchens are used to index the characters. Tom, an architect `in his mid or early fifties', has a smashing kitchen:

It was the kind of kitchen you saw in showrooms or magazines, where no amount of supremely tasteful clutter could obscure the fact that every inch had been thought out, where every cupboard handle and spotlight had been considered, solemnly, before it was chosen.

Elizabeth, who at first is unsure about Tom, is even more unsure about his kitchen, just as later, at times of crisis, she is unsure about his cooking:

Tom put a bowl of salad on the table and a yellow pottery dish of new potatoes. The potatoes were freckled with parsley. Elizabeth looked at them. She wondered, with a kind of detachment, if it was normal to remember to garnish potatoes with parsley or if, and particularly this evening, it had a significance, a subtle message from the parsley chopper to the parsley consumer about the extra trouble taken and all that implied, about love being expressed in practical details because it was sometimes so impossible to express it more straightforwardly. …

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