Continuing with her smartly held observations on the lives and loves of the British middle class, Joanna Trollope's motifs of work, marriage, and family - while certainly not unique – still pack a thematic punch. In Friday Nights, a perfectly stewed brew of contemporary English manners, Trollope offers up a variety of appealing characters who have flung themselves into their particular emotions and the lives of others, regardless of the inevitable outcomes.
Finally retired after years working in the health industry, Eleanor has a chance to reflect on her life. Although
she doesn't exactly regret the fact that she never married and had children, she's not necessarily prepared to face this consummate gap in her time as she's forced to recognize that now there is no domestic life to fall back on.
Weathering her solitude with self-enforced stoicism, it comes as no surprise that Eleanor is quite keen to invite two young and single mothers, Paula and Leslie, over for Friday night get-togethers where they can drink and eat pate, French bread and chocolate while discussing the trials and tribulations of their lives.
Soon enough, three other women are attending: Blaise and her business partner, Karen,
co-owners of Workwell, an agency that specializes in persuading organizations to change the way that they work; and Jude, Leslie's younger sister, who loves house music and wants one day to be a popular disc jockey, but who also remains full of adolescent attitude and refuses to take sufficient care of herself.
Trollope continually shifts her focus between each character beginning with Paula, who has weathered more than her fair share of life's worries.
Now with a new flat, funded largely by the father of Toby, her teenage son, and her job managing a store specializing in uncompromising dark furniture from Indonesia, is finally at a point where she has obtained a measure of security. No so for Linsday; with "her white knuckle grip on life," she has tried to rise above her ramshackle childhood. Recently widowed with her son, Noah, to care for, Lindsay envies Paula's extraordinary energy and her support.
Karen and Blaise have done their best to make Workwell a success. Lately, however, Karen has become ever more distracted
by domestic life, her loving family responsibilities becoming a shackle, with her two young girls, Poppy and Rose, and her artist husband, Lucas, who refuses to shoulder many of the financial burdens of the household. Blaise, by contrast, feels herself becoming ever more focused on her career, her different approach and attitude to work beginning to pull her farther from Karen.
Little do these women realize that when a stranger enters their fold in the form of Jackson, Paula's handsome new beau, that the delicate balance of shared friendships and gentle confidences will eventually be challenged. At first Jackson seems an easy fit for the group, mainly because he seems to want to make Paula happy by forging a companionable relationship with Toby.
But Jackson's curiously imaginative efforts to make himself one of the gang prove to be a powerful combination.
Soon enough his presence is causing these women to question their marriages and their lives, and to eventually turn against each other in petty, small-minded ways as they begin to flounder about in "a swamp of ill-defined anger and resentment."
Throughout all this, Eleanor acts as the den mother and the listening ear, beguiling her friends with sage advice as she battles the pain in her bad hip. It is Paula who seems to remain at the novel's heart, unquestionably enamored of Jackson mainly because he liberates her from "the little ropes of anxiety and self-discipline" that have kept poor battered Linsday tethered to a life of self-imposed orderliness.
Indeed, all of Trollope's women – and her men - are constantly battered by life's hopes and dreams, their identities defined by their marriages, their families, and their work.
They must all face the hard realization that sometimes getting the most out of the situations they have made in life is difficult at best, impossible at worst. Part of the charm of this novel is seeing how these people actually handle their daily heartbreaks, dramas, and their fuzzy wishes for change and for a better, happier future.