The Other Family
Joanna Trollope
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Buy *The Other Family* by Joanna Trollope online

The Other Family
Joanna Trollope
336 pages
April 2010
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Themes of comfort and consolation resonate throughout Trollope’s latest domestic drama, a warmhearted and compassionate study of what it means to put the past behind you. Chrissie falls into a pit of grief so deep there seems neither point nor possibility of climbing out of it after her handsome crooner husband, Ritchie Rossiter, is unexpectedly felled by a heart attack.

Returning from the North London hospital with her three beautiful daughters - Amy, Tamsin and Dilly - Chrissie is cast adrift into widowhood, forced to confront a new financial reality along with the evolving demands of her teenage girls. Although Chrissie knew Ritchie loved her (she was also his manager and keeper of his “necessary well-being"), she could never seem to shift Ritchie toward divorcing Margaret, his wife of twenty-three years.

Over time, Chrissie’s energetic longing for her status as “Mrs. Rossiter” quietly faded, dwindling towards invisibility: “the more she asked the more he played his Gershwin.” Still, she finds her senses shaken when Mark Leverton, the family solicitor, reopens the Rossiter files after Ritchie’s death. This loving widowed mother inexplicably finds herself placed in a situation between pretense and potential humiliation. In the eyes of the law, living with Ritchie hasn’t made her his wife; thus Chrissie is not entitled to the status and privileges - in a tax sense - of being a married woman.

This initial conceit shapes much of Chrissie’s post-Ritchie life as she forces herself to accept less than the love she might have had. While Chrissie is beset by this unexpected news, Margaret enjoys a fairly placid domestic life as a small-time entertainment agent in Tyenside in the northeast of England, where she’s spent the last twenty-three years wondering and hoping, and quelling the expectant dreams of hope that her beloved Ritchie would return to her.

Almost overnight, the battle lines are drawn up. All of the wasted years of longing and jealousy finally pour out in bubbling river of enmity when Margaret and her handsome thirty-something son, Scott, discover they’ve been left the Ritchie Rossiter Songbook along with Ritchie's treasured grand concert piano. At first Scott has an awed gratitude towards his father, soon to be replaced by something much more awkward. The relieved Margaret is just thankful they've been left these things, even as she attempts to put the murk of her husband's desertion behind her.

A deeply empathetic memorial of modern relationships, Trollope taps into the emotional heart of a widow coping in an uncertain world, and two stepchildren who decide to take the first, hesitant steps toward a connection in the shadows of their father. Music is a healing force in this story: Amy with her flute-playing and Scott with his love of folk songs. There’s also the joy of Tamsin and Dilly as they discover the excitement of boyfriends and jobs, the author beautifully charting their growth towards an independent life, free from the constraints of their mother.

Even when Amy succeeds in wrong-footing Chrissie, provoking in her the unworthy demons of jealousy, self-pity and mistrust, their emotional journey - along with Margaret and Scott's - is always compelling. North and South are gorgeously contrasted: Newcastle, the shore, water, river, the sea rank and salty, and overhead the gulls. It's all so different from North London and the cosmopolitan riches of Highgate Hill. Finally, the story's themes: living your own life and moving on are both hard-won lessons for Margaret and Chrissie as they cling to the power of memory and family while their respective worlds rapidly transform around them.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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