There is a conspiracy afoot. The publicity material accompanying Joanna Trollope's splendid new novel, The Best of Friends, tries to present Trollope as merely a woman's novelist, risking the condescension such categories imply. It describes her books as a "secret pleasure" and a "guilty delight." Wherein lies the secrecy and guilt is not explained.

Do not be fooled by this marketing ploy. Joanna Trollope's novels are not feverish little romances. Just remember that years before Trollope was catching on in the U.S. (she is practically a household name in England), all sorts of critics were praising her sensitivity to social nuance and strength of characterization. She is a genuine writer, a worthy descendant of Frances and Anthony.

If you haven't read a Trollope novel yet, you may have seen one of them adapted on PBS perhaps the popular The Rector's Wife. If not, The Best of Friends is a wonderful place to start. Like her other contemporary novels, it describes a cross-section of a community, particularly a couple of families and the shifting alliances between them.

Trollope excells at bringing to life several generations and allowing their varied perspectives to illuminate each other. She documents the confusions and frustrations of teenagers with the same precision and empathy that animates her elderly characters. What is most impressive about her writing is that she performs this legerdemain with the lightest touch, as if it were nothing special, as if anyone could do it. And she does so with an ironic, Olympean sense of humor reminiscent of Jane Austen's.

No doubt it is the easy accessibility and familiar domestic plots that invite comparison to category fiction. But Trollope, while an optimist who writes about people faced with situations that demand their best efforts, eschews easy answers and forced happy endings. There are few villains in her books, although there is no shortage of unpleasantness. Mostly there are confused or embittered people who don't mean to be behaving as badly as they sometimes do. The Best of Friends is the story of Gina, whose husband suddenly abandons her and their teenage daughter Sophy; of Sophy's own coming-of-age; of Gina's longtime friend Laurence, who ultimately falls in love with her; and of Laurence's wife, Hilary, and their own children. We meet Gina's mother Vi, who at 80 is cautiously discovering love again in her retirement community, and Hilary and Laurence's son Gus, who at 14 is hopelessly infatuated with Sophy. Trollope makes these sad, ordinary events seem new and fresh. If you enjoy The Best of Friends, turn to earlier volumes. Especially recommended are The Men and the Girls and A Passionate Man. Like most serious writers, Trollope has chosen to explore the oldest subject the ancient human muddle of desire and yearning for a better life. There are no original stories; only individual visions, fresh candor, and a signature style. Joanna Trollope offers all three.

Reviewed by Michael Sims.

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