When his wife of 20 years succumbs to cancer, Robin Meredith retreats into the exhausting but familiar work of tending his English farm. He can't eat anything more substantial than a hunk of cheese. He doesn't know how to comfort his grieving daughter, Judy, who has moved to London to escape the rural life her California-born mother disliked. He swats at a nagging feeling that his wife never really loved him.
No sooner have they buried her than Robin's brother Joe dies. It's an unexpected, violent death that throws the entire extended family into emotional and financial turmoil and leaves them turning to a stunned Robin for help. Naturally, Robin struggles in his newfound role as man of the family, making awkward attempts to comfort a distraught sister-in-law and his aging parents. He deals with the pressure and his own repressed grief by stumbling into an affair with Zoe, his daughter's 20-something friend.
The unnervingly perceptive Zoe is a less-than-welcome addition at Tideswell Farm, but she gradually charms the entire Meredith family—even Robin's stubborn, unyielding mother—and encourages them to create their own changes rather than accept those thrust upon them.
Joanna Trollope's writing once again shines as she explores the dynamics of loss in an unsuspecting family. As always, Trollope fills her novel with believable characters who say realistic things and live sloppy, imperfect lives like the rest of us. Even 4-year-old Hughie's voice rings true; his quietly willful way of coping with his father's death provides some of the most poignant moments in the book. And Zoe, with her piercings, purple hair and black clothes, should be the last person who catches the eye of a mourning middle-aged farmer. Yet through Trollope's words, their relationship unfolds as naturally as the grief loosening its grip on the family.
Trollope excels at detailing ordinary, everyday life, then hurling life-changing twists at her characters without the slightest hint of melodrama or speciousness. Perhaps even more admirable is the restraint she shows by not whitewashing her stories. You come away from this book without an entirely happy ending, but somehow that makes it all the more satisfying.
Amy Scribner is a writer in Washington, D.C.