Author: Joanna Trollope
Details: (c) Joanna Trollope 1990; Pub Black Swan 1993; ISBN 0-552-99442-1
Verdict: A passionate man displays Trollope's exquisite characterization to great effect, but as a whole is rather depressing.
Reasons for reading it: It was to hand and Trollope novels are a rather superior form of mind candy.
How it came into my hands: Trawling Ely charity shops with hatam_soferet and pseudomonas.
I adore Trollope's characterization; she writes romances, yes, but they are romances that happen to real people. However, A passionate man unfortunately fits in all too well with what appears to be a theme of my being fed up with popular culture's conception of romance and relationships. I'm not sure why this is getting at me so much at the moment; I guess it might be to do with the Great Unmentionable. It's not exactly true that I can't be with the person I love because of prevailing social attitudes about how relationships should work, but that's close enough that it's giving an edge to odd things that probably wouldn't normally bother me.
The basic concept is really quite interesting, and very Trollope (this is one of her earlier books which tended to be a bit formulaic in terms of plot): what happens after the end of a standard genre romance? We have a modest, blushing, pure young heroine swept off her feet by a rich, dashing hero, they get married and go off to live in a beautiful big old house in the country and have three children and are very much in love, and then what? The plot tension mainly comes from the fact that Liza, the heroine, has come to a point in her life where she wants to assert her own independence rather than simply being ruled by her husband and living for being a perfect wife and mother. That's definitely an interesting thing to explore.
The trouble is that I found Liza too annoying to be entirely sympathetic. Yes, it's difficult for her to take a stand and start growing up when in her 30s, and dealing with the reactions of those around her, including her husband, who expect her to be a sweet little thing who doesn't really have any opinions of her own. But she's incredibly whiny and her absolute refusal to discuss how she's feeling or what she wants really irritated me. So my sympathy was very much with Archie for most of the book, because he's clearly a decent person who is in principle happy to take his wife's wishes seriously if she would only bloody express what they are. Also, the side-plot involving his mixed feelings over his father's new partner and then a tragic bereavement is handled extremely well. But then when it comes to the crisis, Mr Perfect Archie reacts by behaving in ways that are certainly selfish and brutal, and bordering on downright cruel, which spoiled the sympathy I'd built up for him in the first two thirds of the book.
But the characterization is marvellous, as ever. And I really liked the way Trollope portrays children. They are loved and obviously on the way to being good people, but they are also incredibly annoying and demanding and don't really have a concept of leaving their parents some space to sort out their relationship crisis. So it's not exactly a bad book, just it somehow made me feel a bit sad about the human condition, with a lot of well-intentioned people messing eachother's lives up out of failure to communicate and struggles with unfair social expectations.