Joanna Trollope

"Brother and Sister"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 01, 2004)

"Nathalie was suspicious of the love word. Lynne [her adoptive mother] used it a lot. Lynne said that she loved Nathalie and so did Ralph [her adoptive father], and they loved her especially because they had chosen her to be their little girl. If you are chosen, Lynne said, that makes you special. But Nathalie was as suspicious of being special as she was of the love-word. It seemed to her…that when Lynne talked about love and specialness she wanted something back."

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope

In this tension-filled domestic drama, Joanna Trollope investigates the effects of the adoption of two children, now adults, on all the families involved -- the birth mothers and their later families, the adoptive parents and grandparents, and the adoptees themselves, their spouses, and their children. In each family, the subject of adoption is the axis around which all the action rotates, and Trollope quickly introduces the reader to all the characters and vividly portrays their lives. Nathalie, the partner of Steve Ross and mother of their child, was adopted as an infant; her adoptive brother David, child of a different mother, was adopted by Nathalie's family when he was two. Nathalie remains determinedly unmarried to Steve, a successful designer, though they live together and share a child, while David, happily married to Marnie and the father of three, is a contented landscape designer with his own business.

Life changes dramatically for all the families when Polly, the five-year-old daughter of Nathalie and Steve, needs surgery for an ear malformation. Though Nathalie has always considered it an advantage to be adopted—"Being adopted allows you to choose to be the person you want to be…to shuffle the cards of [the] past at will"—she suddenly begins to wonder whether Polly's condition is inherited, and her own adoption becomes an issue for her. She asks, "What else don't I know about where Polly's come from?" And as she ponders the unknowns in her life she begins to ask herself questions: "How could [I] have insisted that not only did [I] not mind being adopted but that [I] actually preferred it, when all along [I] knew that [I] was treading a separate, fragile, unhappy path which Polly's longed for arrival had only somehow served to accentuate?"

Because Nathalie never felt particularly close to her adoptive parents, she and her brother David formed an extraordinary bond during their childhood, and this closeness has continued into their adult lives, sometimes making both of their spouses feel left out, and David's wife Marnie particularly jealous. When Steve arranges for Nathalie to be interviewed about adoption by a young researcher, Nathalie suddenly comes to a life-changing realization: "I want to be like people who know where they come from," she announces. Determining to search for her birth mother, she insists that David also make his own journey into the past at the same time, and they begin their simultaneous searches for their birth mothers, sharing their discoveries first with each other, rather than with their spouses.

Trollope has carefully constructed this novel to show the rippling effects of the decision to search for the birth mothers. Nathalie's adoptive mother, not surprisingly, is devastated that both of "her" children need to find "other" mothers. "If Nathalie finds her mother, Lynne [the adoptive mother] will go from being the rescuer to the woman who took another woman's child." Since the reader has met all the involved parties from the beginning of the novel, it is no surprise (and gives away none of the plot) to say that Nathalie and David do find their mothers—and, in fact, do so with the kind of speed possible only in fiction. But the meetings of birth mothers with their adult children are fraught with unexpected complications. Nathalie finds her mother to be a fragile, single woman who has never recovered from having had to give up her child at sixteen, and Nathalie's meeting with her affects both her birth mother and the sister and brother-in-law with whom she lives. David's mother is a married woman with children who has never told anyone about her earlier child, and her husband and sons, not surprisingly, resent David's intrusion into their lives. As for Lynne, the adoptive mother of both Nathalie and David, she can only ask, "How am I supposed to compete with two mothers?"

As the ripple effects continue, and as Nathalie and David try to incorporate their new knowledge of their roots into their old lives, other characters are drawn into the vortex--spouses, children, extended families, and even employees. Unexpected complications send the action in surprising directions and keep the reader wondering how these twists and turns will resolve themselves.

Trollope reveals the inner lives of her characters through her beautifully realized dialogue, and her attention to the details of their personalities and their domestic concerns is stunning. The reader is quickly drawn into the action and into the thoughts of the characters and cannot help but empathize with all these people who are so personally affected by the long-ago adoptions, the present search, and the unexpected discoveries. No one's life is unchanged.

Though the characters seem very realistic, they are not fully developed, however. We learn about each one only what is needed for the author to illustrate the process of adoption and its myriad effects on the people involved in it. Her themes control all the action and the characters themselves, instead of having the action evolve naturally from the characters' personalities and interactions. But readers will be fascinated by this vivid domestic drama, the unusual subject, and the lively characters who bare their souls. When all have had their relationships tested and tempered, they and the reader come to new appreciations of what love really is.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Brother and Sister at author site

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Written as Caroline Harvey:


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About the Author:

Joanna TrollopeJoanna Trollope was born in 1943 in Cotswald. She was state educated in Surrey, then won a small scholarship to Oxford and went on to be first a Civil Servant and then a teacher before succumbing to full time writing about twenty years ago. She began writing historical novels in 1980 (under the name of Caroline Harvey), turning to modern-day fiction in 1987.

The Choir (1988), A Village Affair (1989), The Rector's Wife (1991) and Other People's Children (1998) have all been made into series for television.

She was married twice and now lives alone. She's the mother of two daughters, the stepmother of two stepsons and now a grandmother. She lives in London and Cotswald. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014