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Jewish World Review July 19, 2001/ 28 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Yardley

'Next of Kin' by Joanna Trollope -- IN this, as in her nine previous novels, Joanna Trollope finds large themes in unassuming surroundings and explores them with wit, feeling and originality. Next of Kin centers on a farming family, the Merediths, in England's Midlands. As it opens, one family member has just died, a victim of cancer; midway through a second dies, in more surprising and dramatic circumstances. From these sad events Trollope has fashioned a tale of loss, grief, transformation, renewal and growth, one in which there is much that is affirmative, but none of which is easily achieved.

Trollope writes about families, as do many of the best contemporary British writers. In this she stands in revealing contrast to her American counterparts, who too often reject domestic matters as inherently sentimental and focus more narrowly on the psychological and sexual existence of the individual narrator (e.g., Philip Roth), or more widely on canvasses fraught with political and ideological overtones (e.g., Don DeLillo). As one who readily admits to finding the family the largest and deepest subject of all, I turn to Trollope's fiction for satisfaction and relief much as, until his death seven years ago, I did to Peter Taylor's.

Unlike many of Trollope's previous novels, Next of Kin takes a while to get going. A funeral is a somber beginning for a novel, and there is a substantial cast of characters to be introduced: Carolyn Meredith, dead of cancer while still in her forties, and her widower, Robin; their adopted daughter, Judy, in her early twenties; Robin's brother, Joe, his wife, Lyndsay, and their children; the brothers' septuagenarian parents, Harry and Dilys; and, in short order, various farm workers, friends and others whose lives touch upon the families. Trollope is a bit less sure-handed than usual in getting all of these people into place, but the reader is urged to be patient, for once it gets under way Next of Kin tells a powerful story about complex people to whom usual things happen -- in this case loss and grief -- in ways that are both usual and unusual.

One reason Trollope cannot be categorized (much less dismissed) as a sentimental novelist of domestic life is that she is so determinedly unsentimental about her characters. Take, for starters, Carolyn, or Caro as everyone calls her. Growing up in California the daughter of hippie-ish parents, she became a "nomad" at an early age. To her brother-in-law Joe, who had a brief American period before settling down on the family farm, she "carried with her something of that freedom he had known in America, that air of always keeping moving, keeping searching, that had briefly infected him like a sea fever." Quiet but insistent in manner, she found refuge among the Merediths, "people who identified themselves more by place than by personality or trade," and married Robin not for love but for something else.

Precisely what that something was becomes a question that, after her death, slowly insinuates itself into the minds of the two people closest to her, Robin and Judy. They and the others in the family, Joe most especially, feel a large loss at her death, yet no one seems to know the true nature of that loss or how to express the grief it brings. An outsider among insiders, a California girl among English farm people, Caro is a mystery. As the puzzle of her character gradually unfolds, it discloses aspects of herself, as well as of Robin and Judy, that no one had fully apprehended.


Next of Kin

By Joanna Trollope
Hardcover - 304 pages
Viking Pr

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It becomes clear, for example, that the marriage of Caro and Robin was something less than idyllic. They'd had separate bedrooms for two decades and precious little physical relationship in all those years. They'd adopted a child because Caro was unable to have one herself, as she was well aware before she married Robin yet declined to tell him. What was on her mind? Was she afraid to tell him for fear she would lose him, or was it a calculated deception, or an entrapment if you will? No final answer is given because Caro is no longer around to testify -- and doubtless wouldn't even if she were -- but the reader, like Robin and Judy, is left to understand that Caro was not what she had seemed to be, and that some aspects of her were less than admirable.

The same goes for Judy. One's initial instinct is to be sympathetic to her. Her natural mother had declined to keep her, after all, and now the adopted mother to whom she was almost blindly devoted has died. Yet closer inspection reveals her own flaws. She doesn't exactly reject her father, but she assumes that the troubles in her parents' marriage were all his fault, and she has little patience for what she sees as his cold mistreatment of her mother. A kind young man with whom she has a brief romance sees through her: "It had occurred to Oliver that her persistent attitude to her father was just one more of Judy's excuses, excuses for not putting up with things or just getting on with things the way other people did. And Oliver . . . was getting pretty tired of Judy's excuses."

Oliver is perceptive, but the outsider who really sees through to the heart of the Merediths is Zoe, a free-spirited young woman with whom Judy shares a flat in London. She has, Robin thinks when Judy brings her to visit, a "boldness about her, a directness you usually only found in animals," and it is when she enters the picture that the novel really bursts alive. Unlike Judy, who sees her father, her family and the farm through a distorted lens, Zoe sees them all clearly, and finds much to like and admire in what she sees. Having been taken to the farm as Judy's guest, she shocks Judy -- and Robin -- by returning on her own, uninvited. When Robin asks why she came, she replies: "Look, it's perfectly simple. I wanted to see you again. . . . I liked it here and I liked you. So I came back. See?" Robin chews it over in his mind:

"Simple, she'd said. I liked the farm and I like you, so I came back for more. Simple as that. That's the truth. For a moment, outside his window now, the moon hung clearly in an unclouded space, a simple silver disc except for its blurred unfinished edge, polished and pure. Robin pulled a hand out of his bedclothes and scratched his head, hard. Two rooms away, down the narrow landing, Zoe slept, her strange red head dark on a white pillow, sleeping because -- being Zoe -- that was what the night was for. You did what you needed to do and didn't mind who saw you. There was nothing to hide. Life was for living and there were many, many ways of living it. Zoe lived hers her way and let other people do the same. Simple. See?"

Thus begins the transformation and renewal of Robin Meredith. Judy Meredith, too. As Zoe tells Judy, "One of the things about grief is change, it changes your life and the people in your life, it makes you move on when you don't want to. And that hurts. It's the change you don't want that hurts." Those wise words are at the very heart of this novel, which is itself wise, not to mention rich and surprising, the latter in ways that often catch the reader -- not to mention the characters themselves -- unawares.

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07/03/01: Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood


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