Joanna Trollope writes contemporary novels about real people with realistic problems who live in small British towns and villages. It is one pleasure of reading her that she seldom presents you with a trite ending with all the loose ends tied in a pretty package.
Gina Sitchell and Laurence Wood have been friends since school but were never romantically involved. Their relationship was one that Hilary made sure she understood before agreeing to marry Laurence. Around the time of their marriage, Gina came home to Whittingbourne from living in France and soon married Fergus Bedford, an antiques dealer, and Gina and Hilary became fast friends. Now, twenty years later, Laurence and Hilary run a thriving hotel in the historical Bee House and have three boys. Gina and Fergus live with their only daughter Sophy in a home that Fergus has lovingly restored.
The marriage dynamic of Gina and Fergus has always been to argue, loudly and often. To Gina, nothing has changed, so perhaps that is why she is so shocked and overcome when Fergus coldly informs her that he is leaving her, has indeed been waiting for Sophy to get older before he did so. Then he takes exactly half of the furniture and goes.
Gina is so devastated that she imposes herself on Laurence and Hilary, leaving 16-year-old Sophy in limbo between her own, now unfamiliar home and her grandmother Vi’s tiny apartment. Sophy, who adores her father, is heartbroken and furious.
Between the diverse tasks of managing the hotel and raising three teenage boys and the burden of Gina’s presence, Hilary, first sympathetic, grows tired of the toll Gina’s drama is taking on her household. When Laurence isn’t working as the hotel chef, he seems to be spending all his time comforting Gina. Little does Hilary suspect that her own family life will soon be disrupted by Laurence’s discovery that he loves Gina.
Trollope creates fully realized characters in the two couples but also in their children, and in Vi and her aged suitor. Not all of them are likeable, but they are all convincingly human. I felt sorry for Gina at first, but my sympathy was soon evaporated by her self-centeredness and willingness to wreak havoc with her friend’s family. Fergus seems almost heartless at first, but we soon grow to understand him a little better. None of Trollope’s characters are bad, just people with ordinary complicated personalities who see things from their own points of view.
Trollope creates a story that you want to see resolved but never takes shortcuts to provide a typical happy ending, in fact seldom invents plots for which there could be one. Her novels are for adults, and they deftly explore the complexities and confusions of being human.