A surprisingly discomforting story of well-to-do middle-class farmers coming a cropper as their business goes to hell in a hand-basket.
Harry and Dilys Meredith are the patriarch and matriarch and their two sons, Robin and Joe are the working farmers. Robin is married to Caro, an American, and they have an adopted daughter, Judy with a job on a fashion magazine in London; Joe's wife is Lindsay and they have Hughie aged 3 and baby Rose. But all is not right in Joe's world.
Caro has died of cancer and the novel opens with her funeral. The death of his sister-in-law seems to affect Joe more than it should - they had a link through Joe's travels in America when he was younger, but on Joe's side it seems the link went deeper. Joe is also very worried about money. He has run the arable farm and Robin in adjoining acreage is a milk producer. Though their mother Dilys does the farm accounts for Joe, there are things that he doesn't put through the books.
Joanna Trollope here does a surprisingly good job of tackling some of the presiding problems of farming. The isolation, the endless hard work, the gruelling reverses of farming life - all are well-depicted. The love stuff is standard fare, with a friend of Judy's latching on to Robin as he wends his weary way towards recovery from Caro's death. The book gave me a few hours of enjoyable reading and I was impressed at how well Trollope got to grips with the mud and grit of farming life.
on 20 September 2001
The story begins with the death of Caro, a farmer's wife and adoptive mother of one, who, being American was always an outsider in this family of farmers. This event causes a ripple effect that touches every character. I really enjoyed reading about Zoe's feistiness and freedom which contrasts with the insular, greiving family, and although the story contains much tragedy, overall it is a fascinating insight into emotional repression and release. The positive ending sends the message that life must go on. I recommend it.
I'm currently trying to clear space in the bookpiles by reading books I bought some time ago (usually lighter reads) and haven't yet touched - I'm finding, not surprisingly, that these aren't among my favourites, so please excuse the current spate of large amounts of 3-star reviews.
I think this novel was Joanna Trollope's attempt to break away from the 'Aga-saga' associations her novels had gathered; it's a bleaker story in many ways from her average, set in a less obviously attractive bit of the UK, and the main characters mostly come from a rather different social background to the middle-class professionals about whom Trollope usually writes.
The Meredith family have farmed land outside the small Midlands town of Stretton for two generations. Father Harry and his younger son Joe run an arable farm; next to their land is the dairy farm run by Harry's older son, Robin. For years, the Merediths work back-breakingly hard on their none-too-rewarding land and with their cattle, never complaining, hoping against the odds that things will get better, relying on action rather than talk. But when Robin's enigmatic American wife Caro dies, the family's troubles all appear to come to the surface. Robin finds himself unexpectedly laid low by grief, along with worries about his debts. Although he and Caro were not a happy couple, he finds himself confused, and to some degree missing her. Brother Joe, meanwhile, realizes that he loved Caro much more than he cared to admit, and feels himself sliding into despair - the fact that he also has mounting debts doesn't help. Parents Dilys and Harry struggle to keep the family together, worrying about their boys and the possibility they might lose their land, while Joe's young wife Lyndsay, stuck at home with her small children Hughie and Rosie, mourns that Joe will not confide in her. And in London Robin and Caro's adopted daughter Judy is forced to confront her hostile feelings for her father, and to ask herself if the things that Caro told her about Robin were really true. Judy has tried to break from her family and escape the farm all her life - but is this what she really wants? And when her mysterious flatmate Zoe pays a visit to the farm with her, and seems to establish a strong bond with her family, particularly Robin, Judy has to ask herself why she's feeling so jealous. Does she really want to cut Robin out of her life? It takes a suicide, a severe illness, several dramatic decisions, a new sexual relationship and (for at least three characters) a total change of life before the family tensions are finally brought to some kind of resolution.
I was impressed that Trollope was trying out territory so new to her in this book, and felt that in certain ways she did very well with it. The material about farming was very interesting, and I found the mysterious Zoe, the photographer looking both for a father figure and for a lover who'd satisfy her caring instincts, one of Trollope's more intriguing female characters. Robin was also sympathetic, as were his parents, trying as hard as they could to hang on to what they had. The Zoe and Robin relationship was a rather moving one, and quite convincing (though it was hard at times to see what exactly they had in common). And, though I'm not a great one for Trollope's depiction of children, I thought little Hughie, both afraid of life and wanting to make his mother proud of him, a good creation. The overall plot was an interesting one, with Zoe acting as the catalyst that forces the Meredith family to change their lives. I stop at three stars for three reasons. Partly, I felt that some of the characters - particularly Caro and Joe - remained too enigmatic. We never really knew quite why Caro's marriage had broken down so badly (or why she married Robin in the first place) or why exactly Joe was driven practically to madness by her death. I also felt that the way Trollope wrapped up the story at the end happened too fast and too smoothly, particularly in the bits that involved Judy. And thirdly (and this is purely personal, and I realize might not be a feeling shared by other readers) I wasn't that keen on quite a lot of the characters (bar Zoe, Robin and Robin's parents). Lyndsay came across as rather feeble until the final section of the book, and a bit characterless, while Judy was so petulant that I found myself groaning every time I came to a section where she was the protagonist. Trollope may have been wanting to depict a troubled soul, but she mostly came across as self-indulgent and childish. And it was hard to sympathize with most of the minor characters such as Velma, Debbie and Gareth, who were all a bit stereotyped. This all meant that my interest in the book altered dramatically depending on who was the protagonist in any given section.
All in all a brave attempt by an accomplished writer to stake out new territory, and an effective story though, if not one that appealed hugely to me personally.
on 5 March 2013
Just like all of Joanna Trollope novels this one, I feel, is one of her best. I couldn't put it down and finished the book in just a couple of days. All her novels are filled with such amazing characters - I usually have to make a sort of 'family tree' as I go through her novels otherwise I get so easily confused with who it is I am reading about. A wonderful book, a wonderful story, wonder characters - a must have.