Joanna Trollope probes relationships


"Marrying the Mistress," by Joanna Trollope. Viking. 293 pages. $23.95.

Joanna Trollope's ninth novel concerns what happens when a 62-year-old British judge and a 31-year-old woman decide to get married. They have carried on their affair in secret for several years and now finally decided to take the plunge. This couple is thoroughly in love; she's never clicked with a man like she does with him, and he has been locked in an unhappy marriage for more than 30 years.

Merrion, the "mistress," is frankly in search of a lost father, but this doesn't diminish her love for Guy or the fact that she is a very substantial young woman with a career in law. Guy's long-time wife Laura is the villain in the story. She is a cloying, dependent, helpless woman who will do anything to get her way, including manipulating her barrister son Simon into serving as her representative in the divorce proceedings.

Simon, the first-born, now himself father of two, has something of his mother in him. He both feels sorry for himself and assumes that he's the good person, surrounded by those who are shirking their duty. Also, he is a sucker to his mother, willing to do whatever she demands, which understandably drives his own wife crazy.

The plot is thus clear and dramatic, although it wears thin when the spurned passive-aggressive wife and hoodwinked, slightly sanctimonious son appear to be the only obstacles to happiness.

Fortunately, the plot does develop beyond this, as Guy and Merrion's announcement reverberates through their immediate families. The wound of the upcoming divorce opens everybody to a new scrutiny of their relationships and themselves. Some of the best scenes are from the point of view of Simon's adolescent children. The boy is at the stage of just having found his first girlfriend while the younger daughter is a sensitive, slightly haunted observer of all of this drama.

"Marrying the Mistress" is a best seller in Britain, and like many popular domestic novels, it is a little high handed in its omniscient method, with certain characters being in the right and others quite obviously in the wrong or seriously in need of correction. Many of its chapters are dramatic encounters in which the reader can easily identify with the white hat.

A book like this makes me yearn just a little for a classic, in which the right choice isn't always so obvious, or what seems like the right choice can go seriously awry -- a world closer to the one we live in.

Trollope's observations are intelligent if not surprising, and she has a good sense of the interconnectedness of people. She knows her psychology and concludes this novel thematically in a way that is more than merely staisfying. All in all, "Marrying the Mistress" is a great beach or vacation read.

Speer Morgan's novel "The Freshour Cylinders," winner of an American Book Award, is just out in paperback. He is the editor of the Missouri Review.

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