Mischievous social comedy and subtle portrayals of characters simultaneously thrown together and isolated by their own solipsism—all in an enchanting fifth novel from the South African-born English author (Temples of Delight, 1991, etc.)
Three narrators alternate their separate stories of several families and sets of friends who variously recapitulate the romantic spirit embodied by 18-year-old Lydia Dent, killed in a car accident en route to a meeting with novelist Jonathan Goldman, with whom she shared an interest in minor German Romantic poet Wilhelm Muller (the source of Trapido’s title). Lydia’s older sister, Ellen, recalls the idyllic, willfully eccentric girlhood the siblings spent gently mocking their indulgent father and his businesslike second wife ("the Stepmother"). Jonathan himself recounts the mixed blessings of his wife Katherine’s mastery of conventional domesticity and parenting, the hair-raising rearing of their sickly, temperamental daughter, Stella (nicknamed “The Nuisance Chip” . . . “as if [she were] programmed for maximum nuisance capacity”), and his difficult relationship with his mistress, Sonia, a confident college administrator. The story’s third narrator is Stella, a pale “orange-haired” beauty and promising cellist who studies at Edinburgh University (around which the majority of Trapido’s characters gather), where she unwisely takes up with working-class Scots painter “Izzy” Tench, gets pregnant (with complications), and enters a companionable if loveless marriage with Peregrine “Pen” Massingham, a gentler breed of Scotsman who has his own reasons for being “sexually unfathomable.” The ensuing romantic and sexual complications are worked out with almost Shakespearean finesse and unpredictability (Ellen, for example, pairs up with Jonathan’s ridiculously handsome brother, Roger, “a disobliging nutcase with a set of unlikeable habits”).
Trapido blithely analyzes her people’s sometimes disastrous comings and goings in a bittersweet, often very sexy romance reminiscent of the fiction of Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge and perhaps Rose Macaulay. But she is triumphantly her own woman, and this is one of her most entertaining books.