[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2015.]
Here is a blatantly upper middle-class British family. They work together in a pottery-making business and this is the story of what happens to them in an eventful period of change in all of their lives.
Joanna Trollope, a former chair of the UK’s Orange Prize for books, has recently made the mainstream news with her comments criticising UK literary festivals for their commercialism. She has said that she "feared festivals patronised audiences and created a hierarchy of ‘fame’ – paying celebrities to attend and treating some fiction authors with a lack of respect."
In this book, her most recent of twenty titles, she shows a talent for describing awkward social relationships – the silences, pauses and hesitations – that can be typical of interactions among people, especially those of the constant tea-drinking kind that she has chosen to focus solely on.
The author has a genuine feel for England, that dreary England with its love of order in the nest: in this case a quaint, cottagy, decorative, pastoral land with ever-present flowers and the soothing effect of patterns and comfy sofas. Most of all there is the dream of quiet "dignity" – a word that is pretentiously repeated in the book. These are all elements of apparently-charismatic mother-hen Susie’s business. Her daughters and their men-folk have, until now, fitted into the flow of her company.
But dramas are a-coming of course. What would a book of this type be without some push and pull between family members?
Here, there are nanny problems and Susie’s husband is moving out to restart his music career. Most of all, the arrival in town of Morris, her long-estranged father complicates the scene for everyone. Eventually, Morris is redeemed with a sensitivity that to me was not credible but what is believable though is that the other fathers in the story are both modern and involved with the care of their children.
This is without doubt literature that is targeted at women readers but the males in the story are never set-up as whipping boys or fall-guys. In fact, the female characters are largely career-minded and the power struggles in the company are theirs.
For me this book doesn’t really deliver what I look for in a novel. Even after rereading parts of it to give it a chance to find something that touches me or grabs me, I was disappointed by the ordinariness of the characters and their interactions. When I put my energy into a book I want to have my preconceptions challenged and I want to learn new things about the species that I am a part of.
A good book (whether it´s fiction or non-fiction) sits you down and shakes you up with subtlety or with a sledgehammer: we come to know the insides of the main protagonists, as if they were in fact a newly-discovered part of ourselves. Unfortunately, Balancing Act locates itself in the middle and doesn’t sway toward any uplifting extremities.