Marrying the Mistress
by Joanna Trollope
Published by McArthur & Company
311 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Clarity Without Complications
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Joanna Trollope's voice is absolutely clear. She sketches detail with an artist's eye while letting her characters move the story forward to its natural conclusion.
Like most of her writing, Trollope's latest novel, Marrying the Mistress, focuses on the human elements of an English family pulled apart by emotional factions just out of their control. This time, a great deal of the emotion comes when 60-ish judge Guy Stockdale tells his wife that he's been having an affair for the last seven years and that the 40-year-old marriage they've shared is over.
It's tempting to cast the unfaithful husband as the ogre and the mistress as baggage and, had Trollope succumbed, Marrying the Mistress would be a far less entertaining and successful story. However, Guy Stockdale emerges as one of the book's most sympathetic characters. His wife Laura, however, doesn't fare as well. Laura is needy, controlling and manipulative and despite the fact that she's certainly the hardest done by in the present situation, she is also this particular tale's least likable character. Guy's mistress, a 31-year-old barrister who is younger than Guy and Laura's two sons, is a vibrant and likable character. "She's the real thing," Guy's son Alan tells his brother. "She's a proper person."
Trollope's greatest strength lies with her ability to paint a complete picture with a few bold strokes. With the whistling of a kettle or the sagging of a hemline, she can illuminate more than other writers do in pages of prose. Here we see Guy's elder son struggling with an unfaithful father and what it means in his own life:
He switched on the low lights that illuminated the counter tops and plugged in the kettle. Above the kettle was a small mirror, framed in pine.... He peered into it now. He saw a tired man with bags under his eyes and sleep-rumpled hair and his pyjama collar caught up all anyhow under the neck of a red sweatshirt. Do I look thirty-eight, Simon thought, or forty-eight? Or seventy-eight? Anyway, what does thirty-eight look like? And does thirty-eight with three children and a mortgage inevitably look quite different from thirty-eight with no commitments and a Porsche? He put his tongue out at himself. It did not look pink and gleaming. He put it away again.
It's this economy of phrasing that has so endeared Trollope to her readers and created her as one of the UK's top-selling authors. You know with this author that you will get a readable story. That it will somehow involve the human condition and, at the end of it all, there will be some satisfying conclusion that is not necessarily the one you anticipated.
Trollope takes no unnecessary narrative leaps. She seems not to experiment with her prose. The results are highly readable, engaging novels that, while they aren't earth-or-perception changing, are nonetheless entertaining. And, sometimes, that's enough. | April 2000
Monica Stark is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and editor.