28/09/2015

The Best of Friends (by Joanna Trollope)

I’ve liked Joanna Trollope’s writing style since I first came across one of her books nearly twenty years ago. I found several in charity shops and gradually acquired almost everything she’s written. Now I’m working through them gradually, re-reading, interspersed with novels from some of my other favourite writers.

I first read ‘The Best of Friends’ back in 2000, just over fifteen years ago, after finding it in a second-hand shop. Each of Joanna Trollope’s novels stands alone; this one is slightly unusual in that the main protagonist is not an adult but sixteen-year-old Sophy. We meet her out walking with her close friend Gus, who is a couple of years younger than she is, but has something of a crush on her.

Gus, we quickly learn, has two older brothers. Their parents Laurence and Hilary run a thriving bed and breakfast business and they all live in a comfortable but somewhat chaotic flat connected to the main building. Sophy, by contrast, is an only child. Her parents, Fergus and Gina, seem to spend most of their time arguing, and it’s become increasingly bitter. She’s reached the stage where she doesn’t want to go home, so she takes refuge with Vi, her delightfully bohemian grandmother. And when she finally does go home, her father is waiting for her, to impart some devastating news…

That much is outlined in Chapter One. The rest of the book takes place in just a couple of months, over the summer. Sophy is a likeable girl, although I never felt that I really got to know her. Joanna Trollope isn’t the greatest at characterisation; nevertheless her situations and descriptions of events managed to pull on my emotions quite strongly.

Fergus’s decision has devastating effects that reach out to everyone Sophy cares for, and for a while it felt as if disasters were being piled up, each one worse than the previous one. Family life is threatened in many ways, and the situations were so awful that I could feel empathy even though none of the characters were really alive in my mind. It didn’t help that there are a few similar names (I confused Vi’s friend Dan with the barman Don for several chapters) nor that Sophy’s mother Gina is one of the least likeable main characters I’ve come across in this kind of novel.

Still, I’d totally forgotten the story and had no idea how the plot would resolve itself and by the time I was around half way through the book I was gripped. The writing is terse and well-paced, the conversations mostly believable; places and appearances are described with just enough sensory detail to make them memorable without so much as to become boring.

While there’s a sense in which this is a coming-of-age story for Sophy, it’s also classic women’s fiction of the kind that could be enjoyed by older teenage bookworms as well as adults. There’s some ‘strong’ language, but although plenty of bedroom scenes are mentioned, there are, thankfully, no details. I don’t think it would be of interest to boys, or to anyone under the age of about fifteen.

Other than the flat characters and depressing tone of the first two-thirds of the book, my one gripe was that the author seemed unaware of some parts of UK education law. At one point it’s declared that Sophy must legally go to school in term-times. This is incorrect on two counts: firstly, she could have been withdrawn from school and educated at home at any age. More significantly she’s 16 and in the sixth form; at the time the book was published (1995) she was beyond the minimum school leaving age, and thus no longer legally required to have education of any kind.

However, it’s a minor detail. In general I’d recommend this in a low key way as holiday reading; it’s not precisely comfort reading as it’s quite gut-wrenching in places, but the ending is encouraging, albeit perhaps a tad too neat and tidy.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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