When their children move on, many middle-aged couples find it hard to adjust. Just ask Edie Boyd; her life becomes a mess of confusion, longing and anxiety when twenty-two-year-old Ben, the last of her three grown children, leaves home. He's gone to live with his girlfriend in Walthamstow, just a few train stops away, but as far as Edie is concerned, it might as well be Mongolia.
Russell, Edie's husband, is secretly relieved Ben has left and hopes they will finally be able to have some quality married-time. He thinks Edie is overreacting, and he tells her that it
is now a perfect opportunity for her to reconnect with her acting career. Edie, however, is not so convinced, and tells her sister, Vivien, that she "can't go from longing for Ben to be back to playing being just married all over again in a single seamless movement."
Edie's children Matthew, Rosa and Luke, are equally in distress: Matthew, the eldest, worries about money, and his relationship with his yuppie girlfriend Ruth is strained over her decision to buy an expensive and glamorous flat near the Tate Modern, which he can't afford. Rosa has failed to find absorbing employment, botched her efforts to sustain a romantic relationship, and also neglected to gain exactly the kind of control over her life that she had assumed to be an automatic part of growing up. And Ben,
in the process of leaving home, has ultimately discovered that living in a flat with his girlfriend's rigid mother isn't exactly what he had expected.
All are dealing with difficulties of one kind or another, rendering them tired and preoccupied. So it comes to no surprise to Russell that, one-by-one, they beg to come home, determined to drag their physical and emotional baggage behind them. Adding to the mix is Lazlo, a stray twenty-something waif who looks like "the boy in the fairy tale," rescued by Edie, "the genial giant," whom he meets while she is appearing as Mrs. Alving in a North London production of Ghosts.
Times obviously change, and returning home to their childhood nest doesn't exactly work out as expected. Squabbles erupt over rent money, housework goes unattended, and grocery shopping is neglected. Edie is confused at having her children home again;
it is so unlike the rapture she had anticipated. And for Ben, the household has no coherence about it anymore. Instead of feeling like a unit, it feels like a collection of people living together without any real binding sense of unity.
The charm of the novel is author Joanna Trollope's astute portrayal of such a kind, loving and eccentric family as they navigate the unsteady waters of family loyalty, duty and domesticity. Russell, a left-wing actor's agent, has a sensible outlook on family life, while the neurotic Edie sees herself as a "jobbing actress up for anything as long as it will fit around the children."
She has spent her life trundling along, trying to manage their rickety house and providing for her kids, yet also wishing for more. Russell is the interested observer in the dilemma that Edie must face. She
has spent her life being a martyr to the joys motherhood, with her children at the center of the debate. He worries that she been changed by all those years of nurture, and that she won't "remember how it was to be just married, and how it was to want to be married."
Trollope skillfully mines the issues and agendas of marriage at middle age, skewing the needs, wants and desires of this very ordinary family, She also manages to breathe so much life into her characters, especially the unmoored Edie, a woman on the cusp of middle-age reaching for one more bow in the spotlight of regional theatre; Russell is equally as fascinating, the stolid, dependent husband certain in his beliefs that when one leaves home, one must not come back.
The drama comes from the difficult choices and the quiet domestic agendas the Boyd family must face. As the kids muddle through their own personal and professional lives, they are forced to confront these "shapeless days" where most moral codes are "an unsure matter of personal choice." Trollope is a sharp observer of human nature, and she manages to encapsulate all of her characters desires and insecurities, providing a portrait of a social class somewhat at a loss in modern life, desperately searching for answers and support in a world where "it's not change that's so painful, it's getting used to it."