It’s amazing how seemingly harmless things can present a threat completely out of proportion to their actual size. A tiny spider, no bigger than a fingernail, is enough to launch me out of my seat and all the way across the room, pointing a shaking finger and shrieking, “Kill it! Kill it!” Along the same lines, the mere sight of Breaking the Trust now liquifies my knees and reduces me to incoherent moans of terror. What could be so awful about such a slim and unprepossessing novel? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.
The premise, which doesn’t sound so bad, goes like this: the Gaffer, patriarch of a dull English family, dies, leaving his wife, Clattie, and three children, Ralph, Hugh, and Pippa. At the funeral, Clattie gathers her children to make a shocking announcement: they have a half-brother whom they never knew about, the love child of an extramarital fling between the Gaffer and some obsessive, mentally deranged ex-girlfriend. The half-brother, Titus, has a family of his own, and Clattie and the Gaffer have stayed in touch with him, but it’s always been kept a secret from the legitimate children. Shocked and horrified, the adult children struggle to handle the news and cope with their grief; meanwhile, Clattie attempts to move on and assert her own identity separate from her domineering husband. Now that the skeleton has been dragged out of the family closet, will the knowledge of their father’s failings bring the four children closer together or drive them apart?
Family, and family relationships, are integral to this kind of story, so it’s unfortunate that the characters are so hastily sketched and poorly developed, with approximately one personality trait per character. Ralph is the Golden Boy, the father’s favorite, a dull man with a dull wife; nothing more is ever learned about him. Hugh is an avaricious businessman whose true passion – cooking – has long disappeared beneath his cupidity; appropriately, he’s married to a shallow, mean-spirited wife who’s just as greedy as he. Pippa is a spaced-out hippie who joins fringe religious groups one after another, and has consequently failed to make anything of herself. Clattie has spent her life submitting to her husband’s will and has hardly any personality left at all. There are assorted other characters – spouses, children, lovers, and so on – but since everyone insists on calling their parents by their first names, and the minor characters are so undeveloped, it’s impossible to get a sense of how the family tree really looks.
The writing is really where the book becomes intolerable. Dialogue is completely interchangeable; all the characters speak in exactly the same voice. And it’s not even a good voice – it’s a self-pitying, humorless whine, heavily laden with psychobabble. Characters speak in neat summarizations, explaining their feelings to the reader rather than allowing the reader to infer emotion from their words and actions. Worse, the narrator frequently jumps into the fray, investing a generic phrase with vast quantities of subtextual significance in ham-fisted explanatory asides (“’So?’ he questioned back, trying to avoid the inevitable discussion that his wife so obviously desired”). Conversely, when a scene is just too much trouble to describe, we get hasty recaps (“Bella and Jane played their parts well that evening. By sustaining light conversation and exchanging trivial information, they evaluated and assessed each other and gradually it became clear to them both that they had little in common and didn’t like each other very much”). As the above excerpt makes clear, there is also a problem with run-on sentences, and generally poor punctuation.
Breaking the Trust nearly broke my spirit; it took me several months to slog through its three hundred pages, and I only finished it by barricading myself in my room and forcing myself to keep going. The resolution, which features an unpleasantly melodramatic Act of God, is weak and unconvincing, wrenching the protagonists into uncharacteristic actions and dialogue for the sake of a neat ending. Tedious, humorless, and uninteresting, this book’s bite could quite possibly prove fatal.