26/08/2015

Balancing Act (by Joanna Trollope)

I’ve enjoyed Joanna Trollope’s books since I first came across one of them about fifteen years ago. I’ve gradually collected most of them; some second-hand, some as gifts. So I was pleased to be given her most recent novel (published in 2014) for my birthday a few months ago.

‘Balancing Act’ is a novel about a family of strong-minded women. Susie, the matriarch, was brought up by her grandparents after being abandoned as a baby, and started her own company when she was young. Gifted artistically and with a good eye for business, she built up her company from a small local craft centre to an internationally known factory of British designed products. We learn this in the early chapters, along with - I felt - unnecessary descriptions of the factories and offices and where they were.

Susie has three grown up daughters: Cara, who has inherited her mother’s good business acumen; Ashley, who is more into publicity, and Grace, who is another artist. They all work for the family business, as does Cara’s husband Dan. But there are tensions evident from the start of the book. Dan and Cara want to expand faster than Susie is prepared for. Ashley, who is struggling with the tension between her job (which she loves) and her home and family (two small children, whom she also loves) wants to see more catalogues and more of a say in the running of the company. And Grace isn’t entirely sure what she wants other than a great deal of time and space to herself.

Then there’s Jasper, Susie’s husband, who looked after the home and raised his daughters with lots of affection and encouragement, while keeping up the facade of being part of a band. And Leo, perhaps my favourite character in the book, who is married to Ashley and works as a teacher, until he decides that they need to fire their eminently unsuitable nanny.

Each relationship is evidently simmering under low-key tension, and it doesn’t take much of a catalyst to lead to some outspoken confrontations. The catalyst is a delightful elderly hippy who invades Grace’s space, and makes cracks in Susie’s need for control over her life and family.

There isn’t much plot. It’s a character-based novel, and flits from person to person, home to home, without too much explanation, and with plenty left up to the reader’s imagination. While I felt that far too much background was given in the early chapters, some of it was important in seeing how the family dynamics worked, and why the various tensions happened as they did.

My biggest problem with the book is that most of the characters seem rather flat, perhaps because none of them has a sole viewpoint and we rarely see inside anybody’s mind. I did like Leo; he seems to have more humanity than most of the others in the book, and I liked that this role was given to a man, with four women being the most focussed on business and earning money. But most of the men felt rather caricatured.

The other person I liked was three-year-old Maisie, Leo and Ashley’s daughter, who is going through a defiant stage but needs a great deal of love and understanding. She is perhaps the most realistic character in the book, and I enjoyed her scenes.

The writing, as always with Joanna Trollope, is very good. My only irritation was in one oft-repeated phrase. The first time somebody ‘let a beat fall’ before responding to some comment or question, I thought it a clever device. The second time I shook my head slightly, thinking that perhaps the author had forgotten that she had already used this phrase. By the eighth or ninth time, I was feeling annoyed that someone hadn’t proof-read it and removed the repeated phrase.

Still, that’s a minor quibble. On the whole I thought it a relaxing read; it’s undemanding, there’s nothing unpleasant that happens. Only one person uses bad language and he wasn’t supposed to be a nice person. There’s no real emotional depth to the novel, but nothing unpleasant about it either. The ending is encouraging.

Not recommended if you want a good plot, or indeed a story which reflects high drama, but if you enjoy light women’s reading, I think this would make good holiday reading.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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