When a modern marriage encounters a hallowed institution, watch out. Something has to give, and it’s usually the support troops --- namely, the spouse and kids --- that must compromise. Joanna Trollope first wrote about this clash 20 years ago in a novel called THE RECTOR’S WIFE. In her latest, THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, she echoes not only the title but also the fundamental premise: “the difficulty of being married to someone else’s committed calling,” as she puts it in a back-of-the-book interview. This time, the profession she puts under her fictional microscope is the British army.
"Trollope’s affection for her characters, her talent for making ordinary people seem extraordinary, is intact. She makes you care, and deeply.... [H]er evocation of family life --- in all its careless, wrenching, essential, messy detail --- never fails to give pleasure."
The home front has long been a theme of novels and, especially, movies; think of World War II classics like Mrs. Miniver, Since You Went Away and The Best Years of Our Lives. But that war, unlike the Afghanistan conflict, was uncontroversial, and the life of a soldier’s wife (ostensibly, at least) was more about survival than self-realization. In the 21st century, the army still conforms to many of the same old traditions, while the rest of the world has moved on, especially regarding women’s roles, and Trollope’s book reflects that change. There is nothing very romantic about waiting for your husband and wondering if he is still alive and whole; there is nothing very satisfying about giving up your own work for his; and there is nothing at all straightforward about welcoming him home.
To the outside world, Major Dan Riley is a hero; to the army itself, a candidate for promotion. He is brave and caring: bonding with his men, visiting the wounded, worrying about a maritally troubled mate. His wife, Alexa, knows all of this, and yet, following his return to England from active duty, she finds that he is not really present. He seems to spend all his time on the base, with little apparent interest in telling her what his war was like or listening to her problems: the teaching job she had to turn down because they might move at any moment, the desperate unhappiness of Dan’s stepdaughter, Isabel, at the boarding school to which they’ve sent her (a common strategy among army families, meant to give rootless kids some continuity). He fails to visit his father and grandfather, both of whom are former army men; even his aging Labrador retriever suffers, first from his literal absence, then from his absence of mind.
Alexa confronts Dan about his failure to connect, and her frustration sets off rumblings among the older generation. Fearful that she will walk out, George, Dan’s father, and his grandfather, Eric --- crochety, tender, solitary men, they are the most winning characters in the book --- try to intervene, as do Alexa’s parents, Elaine and Morgan Longworth. Despite obvious class differences (Morgan is a diplomat, not an army guy; as Eric puts it, “[A] lifetime’s poncing round Embassy cocktail parties is never going to help you understand soldiering, is it?”), the four have the same goal: bring Dan to his senses and salvage the marriage.
Not that Dan is an unsympathetic fellow (none of Trollope’s characters are ever flat-out bad). You grasp his “band of brothers” mentality; you even understand how he could pine for a war that kills and maims (“I do miss the smell of cordite,” he tells the captain of his battery. “I love it. I’d wear it as aftershave if I could”). Although Trollope criticizes the army’s lack of compassion for military families, she doesn’t make Dan or his fellow officers into villains, or take issue with the war per se. She’s no radical.
She is a feminist, though, in her sedate way; what interests her most, clearly, is how wives cope with a situation in which their husbands always seem to hold the moral trump cards, leaving them without a sense of purpose or fulfillment. In THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, the female characters drop neatly --- perhaps too neatly --- into a number of slots: from Claire, the enlightened wife of Dan’s superior officer (“You can’t treat the men as if they didn’t have families,” she reproves her husband), and Alexa’s cheerful, ironic neighbors Franny and Mo, to career-focused, rebellious Kate and finally to Mel, the chic, assertive girlfriend of a young soldier (these days, she tells Alexa confidently, military men are “going to have to accept that we might marry them, but we’re not marrying the Army”). Alexa goes through some tortured weeks --- which the reader suffers along with her --- before she finds her own way out.
The army setting is a departure from the cozy and/or stifling English villages or cathedral towns that figure in THE RECTOR’S WIFE and many of Trollope’s other works. Although the book is based on intensive interviews with military families, the author seems to me not quite at ease in this new territory. Perhaps she felt constrained because of the special access the army gave her. The result, in any case, is bland and a bit forced. Often the characters deliver speeches rather than have conversations. A few didactic passages seem lifted from a newspaper editorial, and the denouement, sadly, is rather pat, uncharacteristic of Trollope (one of the things I’ve admired about her books is that they end ambiguously and not always happily).
Still, Alexa is a gutsy and attractive heroine; you ache for her and for Dan, so caught up in his own painful transition that he is heedless of hers. You ache, too, for George and Eric and their regrets over their own failed marriages; you even feel for the neglected Labrador, Beetle. Trollope’s affection for her characters, her talent for making ordinary people seem extraordinary, is intact. She makes you care, and deeply. THE SOLDIER’S WIFE may not attain the wit and richness of her best novels, but her evocation of family life --- in all its careless, wrenching, essential, messy detail --- never fails to give pleasure.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on July 20, 2012
The Soldier's Wife