Joanna Trollope first came to my attention seventeen years ago around the office water cooler. Two high-ranking professional women were extolling Trollope’s knack for using domestic issues to highlight how to deal with people – chick lit for career minded intellectuals. Now I get it; I finally got around to reading one of her books, her latest – City of Friends – Trollope’s twentieth novel.
The book revolves around four women – all friends since college days as economics majors, and all successful in their careers twenty years later, and, most importantly, all still in touch with one another. If you have been fortunate to sustain a friendship over twenty years, you will understand the inordinate pleasure of having someone know your history but you will also know the conscious effort needed to stay connected through inevitable changes in lives. Imagine multiplying all this by four. Communication across two women is manageable, with three it gets a little harder, with four the possibilities for misunderstandings and crossed wires are inevitable. Trollope juggles across the lives of these four friends, with the emphasis on the cost of a successful career for women in both friendship and family.
When Stacey, a private equity executive loses her job when she asks for more flexible hours to care for her mother who has dementia, the crisis triggers a string of confrontations with her friends: banker Gaby, academic Beth, and consultant Melissa, who have their own problems as they juggle family commitments and high-pressure careers. Trollope follows Melissa’s anxiety over her son reconnecting with his father (whom she never married), Beth’s betrayal by her lover Claire, and Gaby’s struggle with her stay-at-home husband. While the plot sounds reminiscent of a Maeve Binchy drama, Trollope’s storytelling uses empathy and energy to realistically reveal the serious underlying difficulties for women trying to combine family and career. Of course, not all is heavy drama – who knew the most important tips for giving a good speech were to wear expensive shoes and not touch your hair.
Trollope’s story in City of Friends was a light pleasure – easy to read but with some substance. In an interview Trollope stated:
“I really believe we learn more about the human condition from fiction than we do from anything else…I think novels help people survive…”
I’m glad I finally read one of Trollope’s books. I will look for more.