"Trollope does an excellent job of describing the dynamics of farm life...an absorbing narrative." Publishers Weekly
Next of Kinby Joanna Trollope
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More than twenty years ago, a young American named Carolyn came to the Meredith family farm, marrying Robin Meredith and settlingnever quite comfortablyinto rural English life. Now Caro has died, leaving behind a husband who has long slept in a separate bedroom and an angry adopted daughter. But another young woman is about to arrive. Her name is Zoe, and unlike Caro, she finds something compelling in the Meredith's strenuous, earthbound lifestyleand in Robin...
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Next of Kin, Chapter One CHAPTER 1
At his wife's funeral, Robin Meredith was asked by a woman in a paisley headscarf, whom he didn't immediately recognize, if he wasn't thankful to know that Caro was now safe with Jesus. He, summoning all the courtesy he could manage at such a moment, said no, he didn't think so. He then went out of the church into the rain and looked at the black hole into which Caro was to be lowered.
"No cremation," she'd said. "I want it done properly. Brass handles. Full-length. In the churchyard."
It was about the only instruction she had given as well as the only acknowledgment she had made that she was dying. There were planks on top of the hole, and long tapes of black webbing had been laid across them with which to lower the coffin.
"You okay?" Robin's daughter said, standing close to him, but not touching.
"Better out of there," he said, meaning the church.
There was a pause, and then Judy said, "Mum liked it, though." Her voice shook.
"Yes," Robin said. He put a hand out to take Judy's, but both hers were deep in her coat pockets, her long, black, Londony coat which proclaimed, as did all her clothes, how far she had deliberately come from the land on which she grew up.
"You never-" Judy hissed suddenly.
The undertakers, lugubrious and ungainly to the point of caricature, trod ponderously toward them. They all wore spectacles and orthopedic-looking shoes. The congregation, walking respectfully behind, began to fan out in a quiet circle, Robin's parents, his brother and sister-in-law, the herdsman from the farm and his wife, Caro's friends, people from the social advice bureau where she had worked,the man who ran the village shop, the woman in the paisley scarf.
Judy began to cry again. She left Robin's side and ran unsteadily through the wet grass in her high heels to where her Aunt Lyndsay stood. Lyndsay put an arm round her. Robin looked up briefly and saw his mother watching him in the calm, mildly curious way she had watched him all his life, as if she could never quite remember who he was. He looked down again, at the coffin, now lying almost at his feet, which contained Caro. It didn't look long enough, not by inches. Caro, after all, had been almost six feet tall.
The vicar of Dean Cross, a small, exhausted man with four parishes to run who refused ever to take a holiday, moved to the graveside under a black umbrella held up by his wife.
"'Happy are the dead who die in the face of Christ!'" he said, without particular conviction. He opened his prayer book and his wife moved the umbrella so that a shower of drops fell upon the open page.
"'In the midst of life,'" he read irritably, "'we are in death. To whom can we turn for help, but to you, Lord, who are justly angered by our sins?'"
Robin glanced again at Judy. She and Lyndsay were both crying now and his brother Joe had hoisted over them a vast yellow umbrella with Mid-Mercia Farmers' Cooperative printed on it in black. Joe's face was set and he was looking straight ahead, his gaze above the grave, above the thought of Caro.
"'We have entrusted our sister Carolyn to God's merciful keeping,'" the vicar said, "'and we now commit her body to the earth-'"
If, Robin thought suddenly, he says "Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes," I will leap the grave and punch him. "'-in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us.'"
The coffin sank down unevenly into the earth in its black slings. "'To Him be glory for ever and ever.'"
The undertakers stepped back, coiling up the webbing. Robin shut his eyes.
"'God will show us the path of life.'"
He opened them again. Judy came forward and stooped to drop on to the coffin a posy of primroses, and then the woman in the paisley headscarf gave a little dart and threw after it an artificial orchid whose plastic stem clattered on the lid.
"'In His presence is the fullness of joy,'" the vicar said, "'and at His right hand there is pleasure for ever more.'"
Joy, Robin thought flatly. Pleasure. He put his hand up to his black tie and tugged at the knot. He hated ties. He hated them as he did churches. The vicar was looking at him across the grave, almost expectantly. Robin nodded at him briefly. Did the man expect him to say thank you?
"'Unto Him that is able to keep us from falling,'" the vicar said, his eyes still upon Robin. "'To the only wise God, our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.'"
"Amen," everyone murmured.
"Nicely done," Robin's mother, Dilys, said.
Harry, his father, moved closer. He looked at his son and then, briefly, at the open grave of his daughter-in-law. Strange woman. American. Never quite seemed able to involve herself with the farm and yet-Harry swallowed. He felt it might be an obscure and diverting comfort to mention to Robin that his new power harrow would cost over six thousand pounds, but thought he'd better not. Not right now, at any rate.
"Judy's taken it hard," Dilys said, her gloved hands easily clasped before her. She glanced across at her younger son. "And so has Joe."
Robin said sharply, "Caro was Judy's mother. And my wife. Not Joe's."
Dilys regarded him.
"I expect," she said, calm and persistent, "that it's almost harder if you've been adopted. Like Judy, you can't help waiting for the next loss." She paused, looking toward the grave, and then she said, in the tone of mildly contemptuous pity she reserved for all those not truly part of her own family, "Poor Carolyn."
Robin jammed his hands in his coat pockets and ducked his head.
"I'm going to get Judy. See you back at the farm for tea."
"Yes," Dilys said. "Yes."
Harry leaned forward, and lightly touched Robin's arm.
"Bear up, lad."
Robin had bought Tideswell Farm two months before Caro had agreed to marry him. Harry had not offered to help him financially, nor had Robin wished to ask. With the proceeds of the sale of a small cottage he had previously bought, with the intention of living in it, and a huge bank loan, he had acquired those two hundred acres running gently down to the River Dean and the farmhouse, a seventeenth-century stone house with gawky Victorian additions. The yard behind the house had been almost entirely decayed, overshadowed by an immense and collapsing Dutch barn, and with no hard standing for cattle. In those early months, a quarter of a century ago, Robin had poured concrete himself, all day and every day, and almost always alone.
The land proved, as he had hoped, reasonable for growing fodder for the cattle; grass on the lower slopes, corn on the higher ones. In spring, when the willows that lined the riverbanks were in soft, new, frondlike leaf, the landscape had a brief prettiness, and if the winter was wet, the river rose to flood as much as a quarter of the acreage, and mute swans arrived in pairs to lend the prospect a stately, almost parklike air. But at other times-and Caro Meredith had felt this sorely-the fields were just land, spaces of earth and grass divided by untidy hedges and fences with ugly, serviceable galvanized-metal gates opening onto the quagmires of mud the cattle and the wheels of tractors made.
The house stood at a midpoint between the river and the minor road down which the milk tanker came daily to empty the bulk tank outside the milking parlor. It was approached by a sloping track, either sticky with mud or cloudy with dust, along which Robin had planted, in a fit of early enthusiasm, alternate green and copper beech trees. At the end of the track, a concreted stretch led away on one side into the yard, and on the other a wooden five-barred gate, propped permanently open with a mossy boulder, gave onto a circular sweep of worn gravel in front of the house. There was a sundial in the center of the sweep, with an engraved metal plate bolted to its surface. "Onlie count," the engraving ran, "the sunny houres." Caro had put it there. It had been her first Christmas present to Robin.
The drive now was full of cars. From over the pungent hedge of leylandii that screened it from the farmyard came the steady clank and whirr of the milking parlor where a relief milker, an efficient, sour-faced man sent by the local agency, proceeded with the afternoon milking. Robin, standing in the doorway to greet people with his funeral tie at half-mast, fought down the urge to go and see that the job was being done properly and that Gareth, Tideswell's herdsman, had indeed mended the puncture in the power hose as instructed.
Behind him, in the gloomy dining room he and Caro had seldom used, a vast funeral tea was spread out on Meredith family cloths, lent by Dilys. Judy, her red hair tousled and still in her black overcoat, was pouring tea, and Lyndsay was handing it round to people, the sugar basin in her free hand. There was an air of discreet excitement in the room at the sight of the food, unfashionable, childlike, teatime food, resting on mats of decoratively pierced white paper which Dilys had brought down to Tideswell and made plain she expected to be used.
Judy, struggling to make the pecan squares and chocolate brownies that had been so much part of Caro's American repertoire, had said defiantly that her mother never used doilies.
"But this is a funeral," Dilys said. "A family funeral. We must do it properly."
She emphasized the word "family." She had made several cakes, huge perfect fruit cakes glistening with cherries, flawless pale sponges decorated with improbably symmetrical segments of crystallized fruit. They lay on the kitchen table in hygienic plastic boxes, formidably professional, resolutely in the tradition of farmers' wives to whom anything not homemade is anathema.
"A family funeral, dear," Dilys said again.
She had looked at Judy, at her long frame, which might have come from either of her parents had they been her true parents; at her untidy red head and broad pale features, which certainly mightn't. Robin was as dark as Harry had once been, with Dilys's own father's narrow, harsh features. And Caro had been all brown-brown hair and eyes and pale brown skin, even in winter. Not an English skin, Dilys had always thought, and certainly not a Meredith one. Even Joe's wife Lyndsay, with all that pale hair and those light eyes no Meredith had ever had, had skin not unlike Dilys's own; fine skin, clear-colored. But Judy looked like none of them. Was like none of them.
"Take your coat off, dear," Dilys said now.
"I'm cold," Judy said. "I'm cold from crying."
"Leave her, Ma," Joe said. He put an arm across Judy's shoulders. "Leave her. You talk to the vicar."
Judy said in a fierce whisper, "I never want to be buried like that."
"Nor me." He took his arm away. "Burnt and scattered for me. Particularly scattered."
She picked up the vast brown two-handled teapot, borrowed from the Dean Cross village hall.
"On the farm?"
"No fear," Joe said, "in the river. Not on the bloody farm."
Robin said beside them, "Who's the woman in the scarf?"
Joe reached past Judy and took a slice of cake off a plate.
"Cornelius. A Mrs. Cornelius. Bought the Chamberses' old place. Rich and dippy. Caro used to visit her."
Robin looked at him.
"Did she? Why? How do you know?"
Joe shrugged, holding one hand below the other to catch the cake crumbs.
"Dunno. Just did. She visited a lot of people."
"She liked people," Judy said, almost angrily. "She liked them. All kinds of people." She shot a look at Robin. "Remember?"
He looked away from her. He looked across this table that he had rescued from a derelict chicken farm on the other side of the county-mahogany, nineteenth century, with nicely turned legs, being used as a perch in a barn-and saw his mother talking to the vicar, and Mrs. Cornelius talking to Gareth's wife, Debbie, and his sister-in-law Lyndsay, characteristically pushing combs back into her cloudy masses of hair, talking to three women Caro used to work with, competent women in their forties, competent women in competent clothes. He thought briefly, with a stab of longing and possible relief, of the milking parlor. Then he thought of what Judy had just said. "Remember?" she'd said, as if it were a charge; "Remember?" as if he'd forgotten in only a week, the week since Caro had died in Stretton Hospital of a brain tumor, what she was like, what she had loved and hated, what she had been. The trouble is, Robin thought, detaching his gaze from Lyndsay's hair and allowing it to drift out toward the damp spring sky through the imperfectly cleaned windows, that it's too soon. It's too soon to remember because she hasn't gone yet. At least, not what was left of her. What didn't go years back. He held his teacup out to Judy.
"Please," he said.
"No one from Carolyn's family?" the vicar said to Dilys. "No one from America?"
Dilys offered him a sandwich.
"Her father's dead. And her mother's in a wheelchair. Two strokes. And she's not seventy."
The vicar, who would have preferred cake, which he was never given at home, took a sandwich.
"Brothers and sisters?"
"Not that I know of."
"Sad, isn't it," the vicar said, looking despondently at his sandwich, "to die in a country that isn't your own and with nobody from home by you." He had said this to his wife the night before, who had replied that it must have happened to Victorian missionaries all the time. There had been an edge of longing to her voice. She had wanted him to be a missionary, and when he had firmly declined in favor of provincial parish priesthood, had flung herself into forging her own links with Christian communities in Africa. The sitting room of the Dean Cross vicarage was full of African artifacts, masks and statues, and beaded hangings in red and black. The vicar would have preferred watercolors, of boats.
"Very sad," Dilys said, not thinking of Caro, but thinking how terrible it would be if she, Dilys, had to die away from Dean Place Farm, away from people who knew the Merediths.
"I've never been to America," the vicar said. He looked at the nearest cake.
"Nor me," Dilys said.
"But I felt I knew something of it sometimes. From Carolyn."
"Oh?" Dilys said. She was eyeing Lyndsay, willing her to stop talking so absorbedly and do a little handing round. It was important to eat after funerals, to remind yourself of living. And to drink. She hoped Robin had remembered the sherry.
"Yes," the vicar said. He thought of those times Caro had sat in his study and asked him to find ways of accommodation for her, ways of coming to terms without complete submission, without the sacrifice of her deepest instincts.
"They're good people," he had said to her, of the Merediths.
"What's good? Not being fornicators and abusers of the weak?"
"It's having integrity," he had said. "And principles. They do their duty."
She'd said sadly, "But that isn't enough. Is it?" and when he had stayed silent, she had insisted, more vehemently, "Is it? Is it?"
He looked at Dilys now, gray hair waved, dark suit brushed, concentration given over entirely to the proper management of the funeral tea.
He said, only half meaning to, "No, it isn't."
Dilys didn't hear him. She was gesturing across the table to Robin with those well-kept, deft, domestic hands, a tiny drinking gesture.
"Sherry?" she mouthed. "Time for sherry."
Later, in the car returning to their modern brick house on the edge of Dean Place Farm, Lyndsay said, "We should have brought Judy back with us."
"Couldn't do that," Joe said. "Couldn't leave Robin alone."
Lyndsay took the combs out of her hair and put them between her teeth. Then she bent her head so that her hair fell forward over her face. Joe was right. Of course he was. Yet there was something about Robin that seemed to contribute to his own loneliness, to conspire to leave him in it, whatever one did-or didn't do-to try and help. She always thought of him as alone, somehow, driving alone, farming alone, standing alone at Stretton Market watching his cattle go through the ring. He was the only one of the Merediths to go in for cattle, too. Harry and Joe were arable farmers, as Harry's father and grandfather had been before them, tenant farmers on the same 250 acres even if the landlord had changed over the years from being a private individual to a company, a local manufacturing company, who had bought up several farms in the early seventies, when the price of land was low. Robin wouldn't be a tenant. Robin wanted to buy.
"Let him," Harry had said. "I shan't stop him, but I shan't help him either."
Yet when Joe had needed a house for himself and Lyndsay, Harry had paid for that. He'd done a deal with the landlord and Lyndsay had been shown the plans, spread out on the table at Dean Place Farm.
"Utility room," Dilys had said, pointing. "Southern aspect. It'll make a lovely home."
Lyndsay took the combs out of her mouth and shoved them back into her scoops of hair. It occurred to her, thinking of Robin, that Joe was solitary, too, in his way. She never quite knew what he was thinking, whether he was happy or sad. She knew he liked it when he was more successful than other arable farmers in the district, but that wasn't happiness, that was merely competitive triumph. Yet there was nothing odd in that, not round here. It might be difficult to get Joe to talk except on a factual level, but most farmers were like that, most farmers she knew didn't talk. Not like women talked. Or at least, some women. Dilys didn't talk that way either. She talked, as Harry and Joe did, about what was going on, on the farm, in the village. Happiness and unhappiness were for Dilys, Lyndsay thought, like the weather; emotions that happened or didn't happen, which were unpredictable and which, above all, had to be borne. If Dilys, in the manner of most wives, had ever had a moment of wanting to strangle Harry, she would have bided her time to let it pass, like waiting for the rain to stop. If you went to Dilys and said that you couldn't quite explain it, but you had the distinct sensation of being at the end of your tether, she would suggest you made chutney, or washed some blankets. Life had to be got through, great lumps of it pushed behind you, undigested if necessary. Life wasn't for battling with; the farm was there for that.
"Don't dwell on it," Dilys would say to Lyndsay. "Don't brood." Had she ever said that to Caro?
"Will he be okay?"
"Robin?" Joe said. "In time, I should think so. In time-"
Lyndsay said shyly, "You were fond of Caro, weren't you?"
There was a small pause, then Joe said, "She made a change. Being American."
Joe had been to America for a year, after agricultural college. Harry hadn't seemed to require him to take a serious job during that year-Robin had noticed this in silence-so Joe had roamed the great distances at will, picking up casual work in bars and diners and on farms in order to buy his passage onward. At one point, seduced by a girl and the mountains of Colorado, he had thought he might stay, but after a few weeks, he seemed to recollect his own legacy of knowing the difference between land and landscape, and had called from Denver to say he would be home by Christmas.
It was then that Robin had announced he was going in for cattle. One evening, at supper in the kitchen of Dean Place Farm, he had said that he had come to a decision, and that he'd be leaving home to start a dairy herd, and maybe a few beef cattle, too. Harry had put his knife and fork down and, in the harsh glare of the overhead light which Dilys saw no reason to soften because it was practical to work by, looked at his wife. Then he looked, much less intently, at Robin, and then he picked up his knife and fork again.
"Done your sums?" he said.
Dilys held out a bowl of buttered cabbage.
"Joe will be home soon," she said.
Robin waited for one of his parents to say that there wasn't room for all three Meredith men on Dean Place Farm, but they didn't. He took a spoonful of cabbage and said, rather more harshly than he meant to, "I want to do it, and it'll leave space for Joe."
Harry grunted. Where Joe would go had been the chief preoccupation of most conversations he and Dilys had had since Joe had left for America.
"I've found a place. Land's not too bad but the yard needs a lot of work. I'd have to build a milking parlor."
Harry looked up again, chewing.
"We've never had stock. Never."
Robin said, "But I'd like to." It occurred to him to say, "And you watch my profits," but he thought he would neither tempt providence nor provoke his father. Instead, he said, "I've got a loan. And a buyer for the cottage."
Dilys got up to put a great wedge of cheese and a jar of pickles on the table. She said serenely, "We wish you luck, dear," and smiled at him as if he had solved a problem for her and she had known all along that he would.
Joe came home bringing a brief exciting aura of America with him to find Robin and some hired earth-moving machinery digging a slurry pit at Tideswell Farm. He also found that Robin had a girlfriend, a tall, brown-haired girl in jeans and cowboy boots painting window frames in the farmhouse.
"She's American, of course," Dilys said. "They met at Young Farmers."
Dilys was doing the farm books, the ledgers and papers spread across the kitchen table weighted by the jam jars in which she kept the small change of housekeeping-egg money, newspaper money, money for the church collection and for shoe repairs.
"Seems nice enough."
Joe thought she was more than nice. She carried with her something of that freedom he had known in America, that air of always keeping moving, keeping searching, that had briefly infected him like a sea fever. In the early weeks after his return, he tried to paint window frames with her, to keep America in his blood by being with her, but she sent him out to help Robin or home to take up his place beside his father. Even later, when she and Robin were married, she had retained a special quality for Joe, a reminder that there were places where life was different from this, where possibility was in the air, like oxygen.
Lyndsay said now, looking straight ahead through the car windshield into the damp dimness of early evening, "I never got to know her very well. I mean, we got on but we weren't close, were we?"
"She was older," Joe said. "She and Robin were married for twenty-four years. Judy's twenty-two after all." The lights of their house shone out suddenly as the lane turned between the hedges. Mary Corriedale, who worked at a paper factory in Stretton and lived in a bungalow in Dean Cross, would be there, putting the children to bed. Rose would no doubt already be in her cot, hurling toys to the floor as she defied the day to be over, and Hughie would be in his pajamas and frog slippers commanding Mary to admire him while he balanced strenuously on one leg, his latest accomplishment.
Poor Caro, Lyndsay thought suddenly, with a stab of real pity, poor Caro not able to have her own children. What would she have done herself if she had discovered she couldn't have them either? Or that Joe couldn't? Being so much younger than Joe, she'd always assumed she'd just have babies when she wanted them. And she had.
"Did Robin know," Lyndsay said. "Did Robin know before he married her that she couldn't have children?" "I don't know," Joe said. He turned the car off the lane and up the concrete slope to the house. "I don't know. I never asked. It's not the kind of thing you do ask, is it?"
The milking parlor lay quiet, wet and orderly after the last hosing down of the day. The rubber and metal clusters of the mechanical milker were looped up next to the big reinforced glass milk jars-some of those, Robin noticed with his relentless eye, were still spattered with slurry-and the channels and ribbings of the floor along the stalls gleamed wet and clean. In the pit between the stalls the hose lay in the loose coil Robin required of it, the bottles of iodine and glycerin spray were lined up on the steps going down to the pit, the kick bars were hanging in a row on the wall at the far end. In the winter, if the river rose enough, the pit flooded and he and Gareth, swearing steadily, milked heavily impeded by chest waders.
He turned off the fluorescent lighting, checked the bulk tank, and went into the barn. It was dark in there, apart from the dim washes of light cast by the low-wattage bulkheads screwed to some of the timbers. Most of the cows were lying down in their cubicles, heads to the wall, their great black-and-white bodies spreading solidly between the rails. Some were standing up, back feet out of the straw and in the slurry channel; others were small enough to have got themselves the wrong way round so that they'd drop muck at the head end and stand in it. He must remind Gareth to put some lime down.
Out in the yard beyond, where some of the cows chose to spend their aimless days, two of the outside cats were crouched on the fodder trough, containing the remains of the day's ration of feed made from chopped wheat straw, given to bulk out the corn. The cats fled at his approach, streaking through the darkness toward the feed store where their harvest of vermin lived. Robin looked up at the sky. There was a moon, but a soft-edged one, presaging rain, and a few stars. In the business of the day, he'd hardly heard the weather forecast, that accustomed obsession. He sniffed deeply. The wind was soft, but there was rain on it, and soon.
He went back through the barn and the parlor to the stretch of concrete that led to the yard door of the house. By the door, the house cat waited, a rusty tortoiseshell, permitted inside because she was house-trained, possessed no antisocial feral attributes, and was a consistent mouser. Robin stooped to take off his boots and scratch her head.
"Hi," he said.
She murmured politely, arching under his hand, and then shot in ahead of him as he opened the door.
Judy was still at the kitchen table, where Robin had left her twenty minutes before. She had cleared away the supper things, but had returned to her chair and was now sitting in it, elbows on the table, staring down into the glass of red wine Robin had given her. She didn't look up when he came in.
He pushed his socked feet into slippers.
"All well," he said.
"A hundred and ten now. I'm trying to build up the Dutch ones. Three to calve next week."
Judy said, still staring at her wine, "What happens if they're bull calves?"
"You know that," Robin said. He poured himself some wine and sat opposite her. "You grew up here."
"They go to market."
"You know that, too. They go as store cattle or to the slaughterhouse. Unless of course some rat gets hold of them and sends them for forty hours to Italy."
"Mum once said to me that one of the first things she learned about farming was that the male of any species was only of any use for his semen. And meat."
Robin said nothing. He turned his glass in his fingers. Supper had been difficult, largely because he didn't know what Judy wanted of him. She had said, at one point, pushing the casserole Dilys had made for them round her plate, "I don't think we're even mourning the same person."
"Of course not," he said. Such a situation seemed utterly clear to him, and not at all surprising, but he had offended her by failing to rise to her implied accusation. She had twitched her grief away from him, as if he might sully it by trying to touch it and inevitably misunderstand it.
Now she said, "Dad-"
"I want to ask you something."
Her mouth quivered.
"Did you love her? Did you love Mum?"
She said, "You said that too quickly."
Robin got up, and leaned on his hands on the table, his face toward Judy.
"I don't think I could say anything to your satisfaction just now."
She looked up at him.
"If you loved her-"
"If you really loved her-"
"Then why are you so angry?"
From Next of Kin by Joanna Trollope. (c) July 2001, Viking, a division of Penguin Putnam, inc. Used by permission.
What People are Saying About This
"Trollope does an excellent job of describing the dynamics of farm life...an absorbing narrative." Publishers Weekly
Meet the Author
Joanna Trollope has been writing fiction for more than 30 years. Some of her best known works include The Rector's Wife (her first #1 bestseller), A Village Affair, Other People's Children, and Marrying the Mistress. She was awarded the OBE in the 1996 Queen's Birthday Honors List for services to literature. She lives in England.
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Like ALL of Joanna Trollope's novels, 'Next of Kin' was well-written but bittersweet. It ends with the reader finding the characters making the most of a situation not necessarily to their liking, but accepting it all the same. I always feel so compromised when I finish one of her novels! Still, they are well written and riveting and I keep on reading her.