The importance of being parsley
OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN by Joanna Trollope Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp. 279 Behind this book is a Good Idea. Noth- ing wrong with that: other novels have been successfully based on a writer's discovery of a Good Idea, like the dramatic potential of slavery or the effect of further education on the Victorian rural poor. It is just that at some point you do need to become more interested in the characters, and in what happens to them, than in the Good Idea. That should fall away like the armature around a Saturn Five. And here it doesn't.
Joanna Trollope's Good Idea is the pre- diction that by the year 2010 there will be more step-families in Britain than families of the other sort, as presumably we shall have to call them. Miss Trollope's publi- cists call them 'birth-families', a construc- tion which for some reason reminds me of Himmler and his interest in eugenics. So out go stepmothers and stepfathers as the reliable villains they were in fiction from fairy tales to Dickens. They will apparently be the norm, and part of a network of rela- tionships, of stepchildren, ex-spouses and new ones, more complicated than a Habs- burg family tree.
This, of course, is good news for jobbing builders, but think how much more so it is for novelists. With the exception of war or a snow-bound hotel there can be no quick- er way of assembling a large and disparate cast, or of exploiting its tensions. The new- family Britain will be the equivalent to nov- elists of the Oklahoma land rush, and already way out in front is Joanna Trol- lope.
First there is Matthew, who is divorced from Nadine and already has three chil- dren when he marries Josie, who has been married to Tom and has one child. Torn was a widower when she married him, with two grown-up children. Enter Elizabeth Brown, unmarried and a civil servant, who takes up with Tom. She has a father, an antiquarian bookseller, with a tom-cat called Basil who plays little part in the merry-go-round, being the only member of the cast to have been neutered.
Nadine resents the new wife, and gets her children to resent both the new wife and their new stepbrother. Tom's grown-up daughter, who has been dumped by Neil who doesn't appear, resents Elizabeth Brown when Tom decides to marry her. Basil, the one character with whom I iden- tified, resents nobody.
With such a large cast the author is at some pains to distinguish them from each other, which she does by giving you a great deal of facts about each in turn. Nadine is beautiful, she is also barking. She is quite clearly barking because of her politics and her indifference to her kitchen. Sometimes the two come together, as when Nadine pours herself a cup of instant coffee:
It tasted strange, sweet but faintly mouldy, as almost everything had tasted during those uncomfortable but exhilarating months in the women's protest camp in Suffolk.
With sex off-stage throughout, kitchens are used to index the characters. Tom, an architect 'in his mid or early fifties', has a smashing kitchen:
It was the kind of kitchen you saw in show- rooms or magazines, where no amount of supremely tasteful clutter could obscure the fact that every inch had been thought out, where every cupboard handle and spotlight had been considered, solemnly, before it was chosen.
Elizabeth, who at first is unsure about Tom, is even more unsure about his kitchen, just as later, at times of crisis, she is unsure about his cooking: Tom put a bowl of salad on the table and a yellow pottery dish of new potatoes. The potatoes were freckled with parsley. Eliza- beth looked at them. She wondered, with a kind of detachment, if it was normal to remember to garnish potatoes with parsley or if, and particularly this evening, it had a sig- nificance, a subtle message from the parsley chopper to the parsley consumer about the extra trouble taken and all that implied, about love being expressed in practical details because it was sometimes so impossi- ble to express it more straightforwardly. Did Tom, when he cooked — which he did often and excellently — always remember the pars- ley?
His daughter Dale, a publisher's rep intent on breaking up the relationship between Tom and Elizabeth, immediately makes for the kitchen:
Dale had made osso bucco. She had Eliza- beth David's Italian Food propped up osten- tatiously against the coffee percolator, and she was chopping garlic and parsley and lemon rind with a long-bladed knife as she had seen television chefs do. The smell was wonderful. She hoped, when Tom came back from this mysterious drink with Lucas, he would say how wonderful the smell was, and not, as he had done the last few days, appear not to notice the effort she was making, the way she was trying to show him that she knew he was in pain, and was sorry. She was sorry, she told herself, chopping chopping ...
This is the first novel I have read in which parsley is almost one of the charac- ters.
And this is Nadine's kitchen: She went across to the table and stacked the bowls and plates and mugs scattered across it into haphazard piles, and carried them over to the sink and dumped them in a plastic washing-up bowl. Then she picked up the washing-up liquid bottle. It was called `Eco- clear' and had cost twice as much as the less environmentally friendly brand on the super- market shelf next to it. It also, as Rory had pointed out, didn't work, dissolving into a pale scum on the water surface and having little effect on the dirty plates left over from the night before. Nadine squeezed the plastic bottle. It gave a wheezy sigh. It was almost empty.
No dishwasher. No chopping-board. And no parsley. The woman is quite clearly unhinged with her `Ecoclear', so it comes as no surprise when her children leave her for their stepmother's kitchen, 'quiet and empty, just as she had left it, with breakfast cleared away and the table bare . . . '
Meanwhile Elizabeth, now in love, is dreaming her dreams.
Sitting here in Tom's kitchen — soon-to-be- her kitchen — Elizabeth could acknowledge to herself at last, and with almost confession- al relief, that it wasn't just wanting Tom that had overtaken her so powerfully . . .
Of course not, she is after his kitchen.
Elizabeth looked round the kitchen, her eye lighting on this and that, a copper colander, a bottle of olive oil, a jug of wooden spoons, a stack of newspapers, a pair of reading glass- es, a bunch of keys, a candlestick, and thought, with a sudden glow of happiness, `I'd like an open fire in here.'
As in pornography the writing quickens when Joanna Trollope gets near a kitchen, and there is the sudden obsession with descriptive detail, in the course of which the outside world just falls away.
Unfortunately she is nowhere near so interested in her characters who, after the initial assembly of facts about them, go on endlessly being themselves. But then I take it this is a symbolic book, in which the anguish of broken family life has nothing on the supreme symbol of the family, the desired or untidy kitchen which can convey all that and more.
I think I would have got the point sooner had this book been called Other People's Kitchens. That is the real horror which 2010 will bring.