SECOND HONEYMOON: This dangerously mushy-sounding title is ironic, thank God. In the hands of a less clever and disciplined writer than Joanna Trollope, it really would be about a man and wife "finding" one another after the kids move out. This never exactly happens, mostly because the empty nest contemplated in the first chapter by Edie Boyd, part-time actress and former full-time mother, is rapidly re-populated as the book progresses...much to the chagrin of her husband Russell, who had secret hopes of being liberated into post-parent bliss.
The plot rocks along at a comfortable real-time pace --- not urgent or momentous, but with a pleasant tension that keeps you reading. Although the crazy-quilt of overlapping events sometimes feels a bit soap-opera, what with three semi-adult children (any older parent will know precisely what I mean by that characterization) and Edie's sister to keep track of, SECOND HONEYMOON is definitely a cut above your average page-turner. Edie, the emotional center of the book, is endearingly three-dimensional, a blend of clear-eyed honesty and sheer emotional goo. Her struggles with the loss of her maternal role, and its return in a different form, are paralleled by the play in which she is performing: Ibsen's Ghosts. A tremendous scandal when it appeared in the 1880s --- it was banned in England until 1914 --- the drama centers on Mrs. Alving, a widow whose "revered" husband turns out to have given her syphilis --- which she passed on in the womb, fatally, to their son Osvald --- as well as to have fathered an illegitimate daughter.
It is to Trollope's credit that she does not belabor the play's relevance (and assumes that readers will know its basic scenario --- frankly, I hadn't read it in so long that I had to Google it). True, Edie forms a quasi-parental relationship with the young actor, Lazlo, who plays Osvald, and certainly, as in all families, there are secrets and shadowy presences in the Boyd clan...there is even a child conceived out of wedlock, though of course with none of the moral shock it delivered in Ibsen's day. Mostly, however, SECOND HONEYMOON is occupied with what being in the play means to Edie.
Character, in fact, is Trollope's chief strength (dialogue, too, at which she is a pure genius) --- even Arsie the cat, an enormous, lazy beast, has terrific personality. The dramatis personae are likable, recognizable people, with the usual human capacity for self-delusion, but doing their best to cope with what life throws their way. The portrait of Edie and Russell, for example, manages to suggest both the affectionate bonds and the heedless taking-for-granted moments of that most challenging of relationships, a long marriage. There are really only two "bad guys" in the book: Max, the ex-husband of Edie's sister Vivien (who struck me as a tad too much of a feminist success story), and the nasty, sexy Cheryl, who plays the daughter in Ghosts. They are no match, though, for the forthright Boyds and their allies.
Does this sound humdrum? Deficient in suspense? It isn't, strangely, as long as you remember not to expect the grueling, melodramatic or macabre, but something more like the small but crucial details and turning points of your own life. And, as in life, there is no sugary ending or neat summary of Lessons Learned. In Trollope's previous novels --- THE RECTOR'S WIFE and THE CHOIR, by the way, were made into absolutely addictive TV miniseries that were broadcast in the U.S. --- time after time I remember expecting a riding-off-into-the-sunset finale, only to be left with something more ambiguous. It takes courage to resist the temptation to tie up a novel with a pretty sash, like a party dress. Trollope's books are plainer, messier, more honest. Her women and men don't "save" each other. They are their own champions.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman