Other People's Children by Joanna Trollope, Bloomsbury, $280 From the neglected wife whose husband puts his work first, to a village shocked by a lesbian affair or the hardships of farming, Joanna Trollope superbly chronicles British village life, her sure and perceptive touch transforming the trials of ordinary life into the extraordinary. Grist to Trollope's mill is the daily grind we all know: unsatisfactory relationships, difficult children, boring jobs, lack of money, stress, the urge to escape. It is just such material that gives Trollope's work its immediacy. This time, Trollope has directed her gaze to step-families. Her publisher notes that by 2010 there will be more step-families than birth families in Britain - a trend that will become more pronounced in Hong Kong as the divorce rate rises. And although Trollope focuses on two relationships, the great network of people drawn into the story because of their links with those relationships serves to illustrate how many lives are touched by changes in one family's circumstances. As the parties to those two new relationships struggle to deal with other people's children, it quickly becomes obvious the past cannot be shrugged off. The new relationships cannot exist independently of what has gone before. Their future rests on a successful coming to terms with painful and sometimes insoluble problems from the past. Other People's Children opens with Josie and Matthew's wedding, the second for both. They are greatly in love, but already there are problems ahead: Josie's son Rufus, so little and lost at the reception, and Matthew's rebellious trio, so like the embittered and difficult mother with whom they will live between visits to the new home their schoolteacher father is setting up. For Matthew, life will be agony without his children; for Josie it will be torture with them as they reject her every overture, doing their best to make her life hell. For their mother, Nadine, they are a lifeline. But her inability to cope at the best of times is compounded by her agony at being usurped by Josie, by the ramshackle house she has chosen and by tight finances - despite most of Matthew's salary going on maintenance, while Josie works to support the new family unit. Meanwhile Josie's former husband, architect Tom, has met Elizabeth, a civil servant and one of his clients, with whom he falls in love. All should be well here: Tom's two children from his first marriage are adults (his first wife died young) and little Rufus, who visits regularly, hits it off with Elizabeth. But Tom's 25-year-old daughter Dale has never fully recovered from her mother's death, which has left her neurotic and in dire need of therapy. She clings to Tom, who has always pandered to her neurosis, and her brother, whose fiancee is becoming increasingly resentful of her. Into this mess steps the straightforward, down-to-earth, downright nice Elizabeth. She is 38, lonely, ready for marriage and family - but this family? Every decision for each pair is like an octopus, its tentacles reaching out towards children, parents and in-laws, siblings, and those with whom these people are in turn involved. With sometimes heart-rending veracity Trollope shows there are no heroes, no quick fixes but a surfeit of victims. The children, often described as 'innocent victims', may be thrust into a situation not of their making, but there is not much innocence on show in their actions. The parents, on the other hand, did choose their lot - yet so much could not have been foreseen for any of them. Trollope, whose past research has included working in a supermarket and living on a farm, again impresses with her thoroughness. The wealth of detail, the insights into the impact of broken and newly made families are so expertly conveyed that Other People's Children is an often uncomfortable and at times unhappy read. But these are not reasons to avoid it. This is a book for everyone, a good story that comes to grips with an important social issue.