Joanna Trollope
Girl from the South
Toronto: McArthur, 2002. Pp. 311. $24.95

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

What do we academics read for pleasure when anything too trashy offends our refined sensibilities but when anything too worthy is a possible candidate for a course syllabus or a research project? One answer is the works of the British writer Joanna Trollope.

Joanna Trollope is a successful writer who can be depended on to produce a well-written novel that invariably provides a first-class read, and her new novel is no exception. With ten successful novels to her creditThe Choir, A Village Affair, A Passionate Man, The Rector's Wife, The Men and the Girls, A Spanish Lover, The Best of Friends, Next of Kin, Other People's Children, Marrying the MistressTrollope has established herself as one of the most enjoyable British novelists writing today. Her books are set in England and are rich with local color. Occasionally she crosses the Channel: A Spanish Lover, it will be no surprise to learn, involves a trip to Spain. But her forte is English village life. Girl from the South is a departure for Trollope, then, because in this novel she crosses the pond, alternating sections of the novel between London and Charleston, South Carolina. The story begins in Charleston in spring and continues on to summer in London, and so on through the year, concluding in Charleston the next spring.

Trollope's cast of characters match her mellow locales. She explores English family life in a sensitive, nuanced manner. Many of her novels involve a mature romance that is set in the frame of the family. Girl from the South has two casts of characters to match the trans-Atlantic settings. The London flatmates include nature photographer Henry Atkins, his longtime girlfriend Tilly, a magazine writer, and his lovable but slovenly friend William. Sounds like the film Notting Hill or John Osborne's ménage à trois in his seminal 1956 play, Look Back in Anger? The Southern cast stars art museum researcher Gillon, surrounded by her family; her psychiatrist mother, Martha; her successful businessman father, Boone Stokes; her brother Cooper; her beautiful Southern Belle sister, Ashley, her father's "Princess"; and her grandmother, Sarah Cutworth, the consummate Southern lady, tended by Miss Minda.

Henry and Gillon have opposite situations: Henry has too little actual family, and Gillon has too much. Gillon feels "suffocated" by the Southern ethos of her extended family, and Henry is floundering without a center or sense of background. Each is intrigued and attracted by the other's situation: Gillon envies the freedom of British life, and Henry envies the security of Southern mores. Henry thinks that "knowing that the wind would always be at your back and the sun reliably upon your face" (311), in the words of "the sentimental Celtic poem" (311), would be a desirable fate. What happens when these two characters and cultures meet forms the heart of the novel.

Readers who have admired Trollope's novels will enjoy Girl from the South, and readers who have never read Trollope have a treat in store for them.