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Love's Labor In a Small English Town

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THE BEST OF FRIENDS

By Joanna Trollope

Viking

293 pp., $23.95

'I think love is a very good place to start," a psychologist counsels one of the wronged wives in Joanna Trollope's new novel. In fact, "The Best of Friends" is all about love: between friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, across generations.

For Vi and Dan, a pair of retirement-housing elders, love is a late-in-life warm blessing. For Laurence and Hilary and their three teenage sons, who run a small family inn, love is buried in busyness. For their elegant and wealthy friends Fergus and Gina, love has become lost in self-absorbed isolation.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Sophy, the 16-year-old daughter of Fergus and Gina. As she struggles to make sense of her disintegrating world, the middle-aged couples make a more muddled mess of it. Fergus goes off to share a house in London with another man, taking exactly half the furniture with him. Laurence decides he's in love with Gina and must go off to France with her. But Hilary, after the shock of Laurence's duplicity, seems to maintain some balance as she copes with the lesson on love she has to learn.

In both families, the teenagers find it hard to get anyone (except octogenarian Vi) to see how the adults' self-centered behavior is affecting them. At one point, Sophy reflects on the lesson that she's learning: "People didn't do things for other people, even if they loved them; they did them for themselves. Not necessarily because they were horrible and selfish but because that's how people were made, how they got through, survived."

Set in a small provincial English town, this is a small-screen drama about limited lives and choices that narrow opportunities. Trollope, in the tradition of her ancestor Anthony, writes fluently, her plot flows, and the conversations are wonderfully real. But it's hard to care what happens to most of her characters. And the resolution of the mess is not particularly satisfying - even though young Sophy may have survived.

* Ruth Johnstone Wales is the Monitor's Page 1 editor.

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