Troubled women, divisive men

Times Staff Writer

WE LIVE on several levels (or just three). Animal: eat, sleep, shelter, procreate. Conscious human: do the right thing, care for young. Member of community: participate in greater good, care for those not one's kin.

Any novel that explores these levels in detail does not leave much room for complicated plot or historical context or atmosphere or landscape. Oddly, literature that focuses exclusively on those aspects of existence -- on daily life, on people in relationships getting needs met -- is often considered what used to be called "midlist." Or worse, "domestic fiction."

As pejorative as the labels seem, these are the titles that claim the most readers. Jane Austen, God rest her soul, were she alive and writing today, might be considered "midlist." As might Proust or Tolstoy (perhaps only the first few chapters of his novels) and countless other examiners of the human condition presented without the supportive framework of philosophy, religion, psychology or any other large system of explanation for why we do the silly things we do.

Joanna Trollope writes about daily life in sometimes painfully real time. In "Friday Nights" she describes the lives of six women of varying ages, social status, desires and goals. (Ethnicity, race, religion don't enter into it.) Eleanor, recently retired in her 60s, looks out the window of the London flat she has lived in for several decades and sees, day after day, two young women struggling with young children. She offers to baby-sit, to give the mothers a break, and when they demur she invites them and the children to her flat on Friday night. Paula, a working single mom, brings Toby, her 3-year-old son. Lindsay, whose husband was killed in a construction accident while she was pregnant, brings her infant, Noah.

The group grows and becomes a regular Friday night gathering. Blaise, a hard-driven single neighbor in her 30s, brings her business partner and friend, Karen, who brings her two daughters, Rose and Poppy. (Karen's husband, Lucas, is a painter who has not been painting much lately.) Lindsay brings her younger sister, Jules, currently homeless and trying to break into the club scene as a DJ.

Eleanor, whose life is by far the most stable, is the group's touchstone. All six women come to rely on one another in various ways practical and emotional, but it is Eleanor who is consulted when practical advice is needed. Eleanor has no regrets: "She had chosen a career, she had chosen a single life. She would never stop being interested in children and families, but she would equally never seek sympathy for not having had either. Her life, grounded in varied and responsible work and enhanced by friends and outings and walking holidays in the Pyrenees, was what she had made of it because that is what she wanted."

Paula, on the other hand, has floated, distracted by love, her entire adult life. Against her father's wishes, she refused to go to college and instead moved to London to work in a shop. At 18, she fell in love with a married man and had Toby when she was 22. In the course of the novel, she meets a charming but ultimately dodgy man named Jackson, who has, let's say, commitment issues. He wastes not just her time but also the group's, and, most important, Toby's.

Paula has come to believe she has no right to be happy. Karen, with her artist husband and two children, is a typical upper-middle-class working mother, juggling too much, managing too many lifelines, watching her marriage disintegrate. She feels shackled by her obligations.

Lindsay and Jules struggle with the financially and emotionally unstable legacy of their childhood as Lindsay tries to provide some stability for her son and her sister.

The men in "Friday Nights" are, for the most part, unreliable. "Men, Eleanor thought, men. Perhaps I know nothing about them. Perhaps I know a great deal. Or perhaps I know just enough to fear their incapacity, sometimes, to see things through. Things that other people have, unfortunately, come to rely on." Jackson, Lucas and Gavin (Toby's absentee father) are divisive forces in the novel. They complicate life and make it precarious, in high contrast to the stabilizing, nurturing efforts of the six women. Young Toby is in imminent danger of growing up to be just like the men around him: "He was learning, Jules thought, small as he was, to do that male thing of taking back control by switching off."

Literature, high literature (think, for better or for worse, of haute cuisine), rarely tolerates such one-sided, cartoonish characters as the men in "Friday Nights." But when you look around you, aren't some people, mired as they are in their behavioral ruts, just a little bit cartoonish?

This cartoonishness happens when we start to live on just one of the three levels: All animal-survival mode makes Jack a dull boy. Too much relationship focus makes Suzy a drama queen. And too much righteous human consciousness makes for helicopter parents and type-A crackBerry addicts.

We live in the midlist every darn day. Which means we don't necessarily want to read about it. Then again, never underestimate the Oprah Effect: the comfort we take from recognizing that we all struggle with the same trumped-up decisions and unbearable burdens and burgeoning frustrations. Midlist fiction is the fuse on the bomb. Not the match. Not the bomb.


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