Book review: Balancing Act - that age-old work-life debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

Balancing Act
by Joanna Trollope
Black Swan

If you were only to glance at this novel, you would see that it is almost all dialogue. There is much for a novice novelist, a wannabe bestseller writer, to learn from this: Joanna Trollope has an admirable facility for telling her story through conversation, argument and in snatches - this novel, her 18th, would work as radio drama.

The plot revolves around four women: a mother, Susie, and her three grown-up daughters - Cara, Ashley and Grace - who run a family business, Susie Sullivan pottery. Their boardroom is designed like a country kitchen: "Natural flooring, display cabinets resembling dressers painted in the trademark duck-egg blue and scarlet, and laden with pottery, walls of framed posters and framed tea towels, conference tables like kitchen tables, proliferations of teapots and rows of mugs on hooks, all of it managing to diminish almost to invisibility the necessary computer terminals and whiteboards."

So far, so Cath Kidston. Or, I kept thinking, this hugely readable novel, with its cosily upmarket feel, would work beautifully as Waitrose's own-brand fiction - were such a thing to exist.

Yet this is not to belittle its accomplishment. Trollope writes about the challenges and satisfactions of being a businesswoman in the context of family with unflagging skill. She is brilliant at exploring the often unearned sense of entitlement within families, the urge to advise, chip in, disapprove.

Should Susie buy an old dairy costing half a million on impulse, just because she can? Should her financial decisions concern everyone in the business? And when will she learn to let go? Balancing Act is about the balance of power between people.

And then there is Morris, Susie's octogenarian dad, who has been living the hippie dream on Lamu island off the coast of Kenya for decades but shows up in Staffordshire expecting a roof over his head. What is to be done with him? And how are the other men in the four women's lives coping?

Trollope shows rather than tells, and draws characters with a minimum of fuss. After one bullying car journey with Jeff, Grace's boyfriend, we are in no doubt he is a bad lot. Otherwise, with the exception of Daniel, who is in the family business, the men are house husbands and sympathetically drawn. At one point, Ashley's husband, Leo, conjures a delicious meal out of scraps, which his mother once described as "running a teaspoon round the fridge".

In her fiction, Joanna Trollope excels at this too.

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