26/06/2013

The Other Family (by Joanna Trollope)

I've enjoyed Joanna Trollope's novels for many years now, so I'm always pleased to discover a new one, or at least one which I have not read. This book has been on my wishlist for a while; it was published in 2010, so I was delighted to be given it as a gift for a recent birthday.

'The Other Family' is about Richie Rossiter who is - or, rather, has been - a well-known singer. Right before this novel begins, he dies of a sudden heart attack. His family are absolutely devastated; we meet them as they are slowly coming to terms with the suddenness of it all, grieving in their different ways. Chrissie, the mother, is shell-shocked, and rather angry too. She worked as Richie’s manager, and has no idea what her future will hold. She’s also very upset that, despite insisting that he loved her, he would never quite take the plunge of getting married.

Tamsin, oldest of the daughters, is in her early 20s. She’s highly organised, perhaps a slightly caricatured ideal firstborn. Dilly, a couple of years younger, is fluffier, more emotional, and very untidy. And Amy, who is nearly 18 and about to take her A-levels, is an accomplished flute player, perhaps closest to her father as she shared his love of music.

But Richie had another family, too. His first love, and still legally his wife, is Margaret, who now works in Newcastle. Their son Scott is in his thirties, working as a lawyer but also quite a talented pianist. Richie hasn’t been in touch with them for a while, so it’s quite a shock when they learn that he remembered them both in his will...

This is what we learn in the first chapters of the book, and in a sense it’s also the majority of the novel - for this isn’t a book with a great deal of plot or action. It’s the exploration of the different people involved, and the way they begin to deal with the shock and grief that has been overwhelming them. There are many minor characters - boyfriends, colleagues, a friendly solicitor, and more... but the majority of the novel takes us into the minds of Richie’s two families.

It could be repetitive and tedious in the hands of a less skilled writer, but Joanna Trollope has turned this into a poignant and moving novel about relationships, and different personalities, and the possibility of hope towards the end of a dark tunnel of grief. Her conversations flow smoothly, the family tensions seem real, sometimes recognisable. We get to know quite a bit about Richie, too, through the eyes of his family members; he was a fun, generous and light-hearted man of considerable talent, but very little thought for the future.

This book touches on relevant issues for today’s society - of the problems that arise when a couple are not legally married, when one of them is no longer there. Of the difficulties of finding jobs, the lack of options for young people, the need to find one’s own path rather than staying at home forever. it’s quite empowering and encouraging despite the somewhat gloomy beginning.

It’s not for everyone: this isn’t classic chick-lit, but it certainly isn’t an action-based book; there’s no clear-cut plot as such; the only ‘conflict’ is that of grief, and tension between the two distinct and separate parts of Richie’s family. I wouldn’t even recommend this as an introduction to Joanna Trollope, unless you particularly like character-based novels of this kind.

But I liked it very much, and am pretty sure that the people - particularly Amy - will stay in my mind for some time to come.

Currently available in both Kindle and paperback form on both sites of the Atlantic.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 26th June 2013

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