One knows where one is with Joanna Trollope. This comment isn’t meant to sound negative. Her novels do not shy away from engaging with social issues such as the implications of adoption or capital punishment, homophobia, loneliness, sibling rivalry, adultery and desertion, just to name a few.
Nevertheless, there is something formulaic about them. Her protagonist is usually a woman who is repressed in some way, or who faces really important choices. Very often, the dilemma is how to reconcile conflicting responsibilities within the self-contained worlds of small societies such as the army, cathedral closes, villages, or family companies. The novels usually end if not with a cosy resolution, but on an optimistic note.
Balancing Act is a further variation on this particular theme. Its action shifting between London and Stoke-on-Trent, this latest novel examines the dynamics of the Moran Family: Susie, her husband Jasper, and her daughters Cara married to Daniel, Ashley married to Leo with whom she has two children, and Grace. When the novel begins Ashley, Cara and Dan are working for Susie Sullivan Pottery, in London while Grace works as a designer at the factory in Stoke. Family loyalty and individual aspirations conflict as Susie, the founder of the company, pursues dreams that seem to exclude her three daughters and her husband. The catalyst for change is the return of Susie’s father who abandoned her as a child.
None of the characters is unsympathetic, and their individual flaws and aspirations are recognizable and believable, but I didn’t particularly care. Yes, Trollope hits the right notes in capturing the ambience of contemporary life in both its domestic and business manifestations, but I’m not sure that I felt that the issues were as potentially devastating as those in some of her earlier books such as The Choir or The Rector’s Wife (still my favourite Trollope). Perhaps, too, one of the reasons I felt less engaged than with others of Trollope’s earlier characters is the fact that in Balancing Act my attention is fractured. What Trollope captures well is the interconnectedness of relationships. This web of connections, however, means that I was concerned about more than just one main character, but there wasn’t room to become truly engaged.
I found myself thinking of a novel like Middlemarch where George Eliot manages to create a sense of the whole cross-section of society, and there is room in the novel, because of its depth, breadth, and length, to care about Fred and Rosamund Vincy as well as about Dorothea Brooke. One senses that Trollope could attain this depth and is perhaps striving towards it. However, would Middlemarch be published today? And if a publisher did take the risk, would said publisher be assured of the kind of sales that follow the publication of a new Joanna Trollope? I’m not sure. Perhaps I am too cynical; perhaps not.