In picking up a novel by Joanna Trollope, readers know what to expect: a well-plotted story, centred on contemporary family relationships, probably told from the woman's point of view, with smart insights into human emotions and motivations, an acceptable writing style, and characters who are complex and sympathetic enough to care about. Once again, this best-selling author delivers.
But that's not all. Trollope's newest, The Soldier's Wife, has an extra aspect that adds immediacy and backbone. Unlike her best-known works, this book builds its plot around a newsworthy topic - the tensions that can unfold when a young British major returns home on leave after six months in Afghanistan.
Alexa and Dan Riley's marriage seemed like a fairy tale romance of two tall, good-looking main characters daring to break social boundaries. Dan is a third-generation military man, the first commissioned officer in his working-class family. Alexa is the only child of a retired low-level diplomat - his high point was "the very brief period, in Paris when he had stood in as a minister at the Embassy, during someone else's illness" - and his elegant and disappointed wife. When Alexa and Dan meet at a party, she is 26 years old and raising a toddler daughter on her own, after her first husband had died of a brain tumour.
Dan and Alexa marry, settle into army housing, and have twin girls who are three years old as the book begins. Some quandaries have inevitably piled up during Dan's deployment in Afghanistan - Isabel (Alexa's daughter from her first marriage, now approaching teenagerhood) is miserable at boarding school, and Alexa has been offered a tempting position as assistant head of languages at a local private school - but it's nothing they can't figure out together, like any happily married couple. If only they could talk to each other.
However, Dan isn't truly home, psychologically or emotionally. He is worrying about his troops' severe injuries plus some accusations of drug use while simultaneously angling for a promotion. Moreover, Gus, his best friend from the army, is in a state of collapse because his wife has abruptly left him. How can Dan possibly share with Alexa what he went through in combat? "All that was achieved in the long run by telling too much was to leave the person you loved - wife, girlfriend, family member with a series of ghastly images of, say, torn body parts scattered across the desert grit," he tells himself. "They could never, any of them, really get it."
Alexa, meanwhile, is growing increasingly constricted in the role of dutiful army wife. Night after night, Dan gets home too late to tuck in the twins or have dinner with her because he's out with Gus or taking care of lingering military duties. He also ignores their doting parents. Then Isabel runs away from school, and instead of moving closer to Alexa to cope with this crisis, Dan creates a new barrier by bringing Gus to live with them.
As the multiple storylines gallop forward, an astute reader could probably forecast the ending, but it's a page-turning ride to get there. Hovering at the edges is the intriguing figure of Jack Dearlove, who has been Alexa's confidante since childhood and who introduced her to her first husband. Since Trollope is obviously teasing the reader with the idea that this chubby businessman is the one Alexa was destined to marry, the real question is what the reader should do with that tease.