'Trollope writes about family life with wit, intelligence and verve' Guardian
When you've dedicated your life to your children, what happens when they grow up?
Rachel loves being at the centre of her large family. She has devoted herself fiercely to bringing up her three sons, but at their childhood home on the wide, bird-haunted coast of Suffolk, Rachel finds that her control begins to slip away. Other women - her daughters-in-law - are usurping her position. They have become more important to her boys than she is.
A crisis brings these subtle rifts to the surface. Can there be a way forward, if they are to survive as a family?
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About the Author
Joanna Trollope is the author of many highly acclaimed bestselling novels. She has also written a study of women in the British Empire, Britannia's Daughters, as well as a number of historical novels.
Born in Gloucesterhire, she now lives in London. She was appointed OBE in the 1996 Queen's Birthday Honours List.
Visit her website at www.joannatrollope.com
Joanna Trollope is the author of many highly acclaimed bestselling novels. She has also written a study of women in the British Empire, Britannia's Daughters, as well as a number of historical novels.
Born in Gloucesterhire, she now lives in London. She was appointed OBE in the 1996 Queen's Birthday Honours List and CBE in 2019.
Read an Excerpt
From the front pew, Anthony had an uninterrupted view of the back of the girl who was about to become his third daughter-in-law. The church had a wide aisle, and a broad carpeted space below the shallow chancel steps, where the four little bridesmaids had plopped themselves down in the pink silk nests of their skirts, during the address, so that there was a clear line of sight between Anthony and the bridal pair.
The bride, tightly swathed in ivory satin, seemed to Anthony to have the seductively imprisoned air of a landlocked mermaid. Her dress fitted closely – very closely – from below her shoulders to her knees and then fanned out into soft folds, and a fluid little train, which spilled carelessly down the chancel steps behind her. Anthony’s gaze travelled slowly from the crown of her pale cropped head, veiled in gauze and scattered with flowers, down to her invisible feet, and then back up again to rest on the unquestionably satisfactory curves of her waist and hips. She has, Anthony thought, a gorgeous figure, even if it is improper for her almost fatherin- law to think such a thing. Gorgeous.
He swallowed, and transferred his gaze sternly to his son. Luke, exuding that raw and possessive male pride that gives wedding days such an edge, was half turned towards his bride. There had been a touching moment five minutes before, when Charlotte’s widowed mother had reached up to fold her daughter’s veil back from her face and the two had regarded each other for several seconds with an intensity of understanding that excluded everyone else around them. Anthony had glanced down at Rachel beside him and wondered, as he often had in the decades they had been together, whether her composure hid some instinctive yearning she would never give voice to, and how her primitive and unavoidable reaction to yielding a third son to another woman would manifest itself in the coming months and years, escaping like puffs of hot steam through cracks in the earth’s crust.
‘OK?’ he said softly.
Rachel took no notice. He couldn’t even tell if she was actually looking at Charlotte, or whether it was Luke she was concentrating on, admiring the breadth of his shoulders and the clearness of his skin and asking herself, at some deep level, if Charlotte really, really knew what an extravagantly fortunate girl she was. Instead of a conventional hat, Rachel had pinned a small explosion of green feathers to her hair, very much on one side, and the trembling of the feathers, like dragonflies on wires, seemed to Anthony the only indication that Rachel’s inner self was not as unruffled as her outer one. Well, he thought, unable to gain her complicity, if she is absorbed in Luke, I will return to contemplating Charlotte’s bottom. I won’t be alone. Every man in the church who can see it will be doing the same. It is sheer prissiness to pretend otherwise.
The priest, a jovial man wearing a stole patterned with aggressive modern embroidery, was delivering a little homily based on a line from Robert Browning which was printed inside the service sheet.
Grow old along with me,
The best is yet to be.
This poem, he was saying, was not actually about marriage. It was about the reward experience can be for the loss of youth. It was a tribute to a Sephardic Jewish scholar of the twelfth century, but all the same it was relevant, it celebrated joy, it commanded us to call the glory from the grey, it urged trust in God. The priest spread his wide, white-sleeved arms and beamed upon Charlotte and Luke and Charlotte’s mother in her lace dress and coat, and all the congregation. Anthony removed his gaze from what was about to belong to his youngest son, and looked up at the roof. It had been heavily restored, the beams varnished, the ceiling plaster between them brilliantly whitened. Anthony sighed. How lovely it would have been if Luke could have been married, as his elder brother Ralph had been, in the church at home, and not in this cosily domesticated bit of Buckinghamshire with no marshes, no wading birds or reed beds or vast, cloud-piled skies. How lovely it would be if they were all in Suffolk, now.
The church at home would, of course, have been perfect. Anthony had no orthodox faith, but he liked the look and feel of churches, the dignities and absurdities of ritual, the shy belonging of English Anglican congregations. He had known his own village church all his life; it was as old as the rabbi in Browning’s poem, even if no longer quite in its original form, and it was wide and light and welcoming, with clear-glass windows and a marvellous small modern bronze sculpture of Noah releasing the dove, to commemorate the first performance there of Benjamin Britten’s church opera, Noye’s Fludde. That had been in 1958, when Anthony was eleven. He had heard all the church operas there, in the far-off days before the Suffolk coast had become a place of musical pilgrimage, sitting through them dressed in his school greyflannel shorts and a tie, as a mark of respect to the music and to the composer. It was where he had first heard ‘Curlew River’, which remained his favourite, long before he had dared to put drawing at the heart of his life, long before birds became a passion. It was the building where he had first become aware of the profound importance of creativity, and thus it was natural that he should want his sons to go through the great rites of life’s passage there too. Wasn’t it?
They had all been christened there, Edward and Ralph and Luke. Anthony might have preferred some simple humanist naming ceremony, but Rachel had wanted them christened in the church, baptized from the ancient and charming font, and she had wanted it quite forcefully.
‘They don’t have to stay Christian,’ she’d said to Anthony over her shoulder, as always occupied with something, ‘but at least they have the option. It’s what you had, after all. Why shouldn’t they have what you had?’
The christenings had been lovely, of course, and moving, and Anthony’s sense of profound association with the church building had grown deeper with each one. In fact, so intense was his assumption that that was where the boys would marry – when, if, they married – that he was startled when his eldest, Edward, appeared with an elegant and determined young Swede, and announced that they were to be married, and, naturally, from her home, not his.
His fiancée, a laboratory researcher into the analysis of materials for museums and galleries, had been well briefed. She drew Anthony aside, and fixed her astonishing light-blue gaze on him.
‘You needn’t worry,’ Sigrid said in her perfect English, ‘it will be a humanist ceremony. You will feel quite at home.’ The wedding of Edward and Sigrid had taken place at her parents’ summer house, on some little low, anonymous island in the archipelago outside Stockholm, and they had eaten crayfish afterwards, wearing huge paper bibs, mountains and mountains of crayfish, and aquavit had flowed like a fatal river, and it never got dark. Anthony remembered stumbling about along the pebbly shore in the strange, glimmering night-time light, looking for Rachel, and being pursued by a rapacious platinum blonde in rimless spectacles, and deck shoes.
The morning after the wedding Sigrid had appeared, packet-fresh in white and grey, with her smooth hair in a ponytail, and taken Ed away in a boat, not to return. Anthony and Rachel were left marooned among Sigrid’s family and friends under a cloudless sky and entirely surrounded by water. They’d held hands, Anthony recalled, on the flight home, and Rachel had said, looking away from him out of the aeroplane window, ‘Some situations are just too foreign to react to, aren’t they?’
And a bit later when Anthony said, ‘Do you think they are actually married?’ she’d stared right at him and said, ‘I have no idea.’
Well, that was over eleven years ago now, almost twelve. And there, on the carpet below the chancel steps, sat Mariella, Edward and Sigrid’s eight-year-old daughter. She was sitting very still, and upright, her ballet-slippered feet tucked under her pink skirts, her hair held off her face by an Alice band of rosebuds. Anthony tried to catch her eye. His only granddaughter. His grave, self-possessed granddaughter. Who spoke English and Swedish and played the cello. By the merest movement of her head, Mariella indicated that she was aware of him, but she wouldn’t look his way. Her job that day, her mother had said, was to set a good example to the other little bridesmaids, all Charlotte’s nieces, and Mariella’s life was largely dedicated to securing her mother’s good opinion. She knew she had her grandfather’s, whatever she did, as a matter of course.
‘Concentrate,’ Rachel, beside him, hissed suddenly.
He snapped to attention.
‘I’m delighted to announce,’ the priest said, removing his stole that he’d wrapped around Luke and Charlotte’s linked, newly ringed hands, ‘that Luke and Charlotte are now husband and wife!’
Luke leaned to kiss his wife on the cheek, and she put her arms around his neck, and then he flung his own arms around her and kissed her with fervour, and the church erupted into applause. Mariella got to her feet and shook out her skirts, glancing at her mother for the next cue.
‘In pairs,’ Anthony saw Sigrid mouth to the little girls.
‘Two by two.’
Charlotte was laughing. Luke was laughing. Some of Luke’s friends, further down the church, were whooping. Anthony took Rachel’s hand.
‘Who we don’t really know—’
‘Well,’ Anthony said, ‘if she’s only half as good as Petra—’
Rachel took her hand away.
The reception was held in a marquee in the garden of Charlotte’s childhood home. It was a dry day, but overcast, and the marquee was filled with a queer greenish light that made everyone look ill. The lawn on which it was erected sloped slightly, so that standing up, complicated by doing it on rucked coconut matting, was almost impossible, especially for Charlotte’s friends who were, without exception, shod in statement shoes with towering heels. Through an opening at the lower end of the marquee, the immediate bridal party could be seen picturesquely on the edge of a large pond, being ordered about by a photographer.
Oh God, water, Petra thought. Barney, who was still not walking, was safely strapped into his pushchair with the distraction of a miniature box of raisins, but Kit, at three, was mobile and had been irresistibly drawn to water all his life. Neither child, in the unfamiliarity of a hotel room the previous night, had slept more than fitfully, so neither Petra nor Ralph had slept either and Ralph had finally got up at five in the morning and gone for such a long walk – well over two hours – that Petra had begun to suspect he had gone for ever. And now, uncharacteristically, he had joined a roaring group of Luke’s friends, and he was drinking champagne, and smoking, despite the fact that he had given up cigarettes when Petra was pregnant with Kit and, as far as she knew, hadn’t smoked since then.
Kit was whining. He was exhausted and hungry and intractable. Keeping up a low uneven grizzle, he wound himself round and round in Petra’s skirt, shoving against her thighs, dishevelled and beyond being reasoned with. He had started the day in the white linen shirt and darkblue trousers which Charlotte had requested even though she considered him too young to be a page, but both had become so filthy and crumpled in church that he was back in the Spider-Man T-shirt he insisted on wearing whenever it wasn’t actually in the washing machine. Petra herself, in the clothes that had looked to her both original and becoming hanging on the front of her wardrobe in their small bedroom at home, felt as out of sorts and out of place as Kit plainly did. Charlotte’s friends, mostly in their twenties, were dressed for the mythical world of cocktails. She looked down at Kit. Intensely aggravating though he was being, he was to be pitied. He was her sweet, sensitive, imaginative little boy and he had been plucked out of the familiarity that he relied upon, on an entirely and exclusively adult whim, and dumped down in an artificial and alien environment where the bed was not his own and the sausages were seasoned fiercely with pepper. She put a hand on his head. He felt hot and damp and unhappy.
‘Petra,’ Anthony said.
Petra turned with relief.
Anthony gave her shoulder a brief pat, and then squatted down beside Kit.
‘Poor old boy.’
Kit adored his grandfather, but he couldn’t give up his misery all of a sudden. He thrust his lower lip out.
Anthony said, ‘Might you manage a strawberry?’
Kit shook his head and plunged his face between Petra’s
‘Or a meringue?’
Kit went still. Then he took his face out of Petra’s skirt. He looked at Anthony.
‘D’you know what they are?’
‘No,’ Kit said.
‘Crunchy things made of sugar. Delicious. Really, really, really bad for your teeth.’
Kit pushed his face out of sight again. Anthony stood up.
‘Shall I take him away and force-feed him something?’ Petra looked at her father-in-law, comfortably in his own father’s morning suit, shabbily splendid.
‘You’re too clean.’
‘I don’t mind a bit of sticky. Have you got a drink?’
‘No. And I’m worried about the water.’
Petra indicated with the hand that wasn’t trying to restrain Kit.
‘Down there. He hasn’t noticed it yet, thank goodness.’
‘Somewhere,’ Petra said.
Anthony regarded her.
‘It’s not much fun for you, all this. It is—’
‘Well,’ Petra said, ‘weddings aren’t meant for people of three, or for people with people of three to look after.’
She glanced down at Kit. He was still now, breathing hotly into her skin through the fabric of her skirt.
‘Ours was lovely.’
‘Perfect day, walking back from the church to your garden, all the roses out, everybody’s dogs and children—’
Anthony smiled at her. Then he said casually to Kit, ‘Crisps?’
Kit stopped breathing.
‘Maybe,’ Anthony said, ‘even Coca-Cola?’
Kit said something muffled.
‘With a straw!’ Kit shouted into Petra’s skirt.
‘If you like.’
‘Thank you,’ Petra said. ‘Really, thank you.’
‘I am sitting next to Charlotte’s mother at whatever meal this is. She’s a noted plantswoman and amateur botanical artist so we are put together at all occasions. I shall fortify myself by feeding Kit the wrong things first. Better eat the wrong things than nothing. If you don’t come with me, Kit, I shall choose your straw colour for you and I might choose yellow.’
‘No!’ Kit shouted.
He flung himself, scarlet and tousled, away from his mother.
‘Sam, Sam,’ Anthony said to him in a mock Yorkshire accent, ‘pick up tha’ musket.’
‘You’re a lifeline,’ Petra said.
Anthony winked at her.
‘You know what you are.’
She watched them walk away together, unsteadily over the coconut matting, hand in hand, Anthony gesturing about something, Kit as scruffy as a bundle of dirty washing in that sleek company. She looked down at the pushchair. Barney had finished the raisins and torn the box open so that he could lick traces of residual sweetness from the inside. He had faint brown smudges across his fat cheeks and on the end of his nose.
‘Where,’ Petra said to him, ‘would we be without your granny and gramps?’
It was amazing, Charlotte thought giddily, to be so violently happy. It was better than waterskiing, or dancing, or driving too fast, or even the moment just before someone you were dying to kiss you actually kissed you. It was amazing to feel so beautiful, and so wanted, and so full of hope, and so pleased to see everyone and so awed and triumphant to have someone like Luke as your husband. Husband! What a word. What an astonishing, grown-up, glamorous word. My husband Luke Brinkley. Hello, this is Mrs Brinkley speaking, Mrs Luke Brinkley. I’m so sorry, but I’ll have to let you know after I’ve spoken to my husband, my husband Luke Brinkley, mine. Mine. She looked down at her hand. Her wedding ring was brilliant with newness. The diamonds in her engagement ring were dazzling. The diamonds had come from an old brooch belonging to Luke’s grandmother, and they had designed the ring together. Luke had actually done most of the designing because he was the artistic one, coming as he did from an artistic family. Charlotte’s mother was an artist too, of course, but of a very controlled kind. The table where she worked at her meticulous drawings of catkins and berries was completely orderly. It wasn’t like Anthony’s studio. Not at all.
Charlotte loved Anthony’s studio. She thought, in time, that she might rather come to love Anthony himself – oh, and Rachel, of course – but at the moment, with her own father only dead two years, it seemed a bit disloyal to think of loving anyone else in the father category. But Anthony’s studio, in that amazing, messy, colourful house, was a perfectly safe thing to love, with all its painting paraphernalia, and sketches and pictures pinned up all anyhow everywhere, and the photographs of birds and models of birds and sculptures of birds and skeletons of birds on every surface and hanging from the beams of the ceiling in a kind of birdy fly-past. She’d been there once – it was only her second or third visit to Suffolk – when Anthony and Rachel were looking after their little grandson, Kit, the one who was so shy and difficult to engage with, and Anthony had taken down the skeleton of a godwit’s wing from a dusty shelf, and drawn out the frail fan of bones so that Kit could see how beautifully it worked. Kit had been quite absorbed. So had Charlotte. When she mentioned, at work, that she had met someone called Anthony Brinkley, a boy looked up from the next desk in the newsroom and said, ‘The Anthony Brinkley? The bird painter? My dad’s mad on birds, he’s got all his books,’ and Charlotte had felt at once excited and respectful that she had been shown the godwit’s wing by Anthony Brinkley. And now here he was, her father-in-law. And Rachel was her mother-in-law. How amazing to have parents-in-law, and brothers- and sisters-in-law, and to be going to live with Luke, not in her cramped basement flat in Clapham, but in the flat Luke had found two minutes from Shoreditch High Street. How cool was that? How cool was it to be married, well before she was thirty, to someone like Luke and to be so happy with everyone and everything that she just wanted the day to go on for ever?
She looked at her champagne glass. It was full again. People kept giving her full ones, it was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, but wonderful too. Everything was wonderful. She caught Luke’s eye across the heads of a group of people and he blew her a lingering kiss.
‘Quite soon,’ Charlotte thought, ‘quite soon, I’ll be back in bed with him.’
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Daughters-in-Law includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joanna Trollope. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rachel Brinkley has devoted herself fiercely to her three sons and continues to do so now that they are all grown up. But when her youngest, Luke, gets married, Rachel finds that her control begins to slip away. Charlotte and Rachel butt heads almost immediately, but when Rachel’s other son, Ralph, discovers his wife’s affair, it quickly takes center-stage. Even Edward, the eldest and most settled son, finds his marriage to Sigrid troubled by the family drama.
As these subtle rifts rise to the surface, the Brinkley family is forced to find new loyalties and call old assumptions into question, while Rachel must find a way to preserve the relationships she holds most dear.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The novel opens with Anthony fixating on his soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s figure. How does this affect your opinion of him? Does it set any expectations for him as a character, or for the book as a whole?
2. Early in the novel, Petra is regarded as the standard by which the other daughters-in-law are judged. Who suffers most from this comparison? Petra, Charlotte, or Sigrid?
3. The daughter-in-law relationship is traditionally more fraught than that of the son-in-law. Why do you think this kind of tension exists? Whom did you identify with the most? The daughter-in-law or the mother characters? Why?
4. The novel shifts in perspective many times. How do the varying viewpoints shape your reading experience? Do you enjoy certain characters more than others? Would you have preferred more from a particular viewpoint?
5. How does the author avoid stereotyping the characters? How realistic are the ways in which the characters grow and change throughout the novel?
6. How would you characterize Ralph, as a father and husband, in comparison to Edward and Luke?
7. Did you find yourself taking sides with any of the characters? Which incidents were the most polarizing? How did your sympathies for the characters shift throughout the novel?
8. Did you understand Rachel’s outburst over Charlotte and Luke’s announcement? Why or why not? Was her reaction forgivable? How would you have responded if your mother or close family member acted similarly?
9. How large a role does proximity and distance play in the family relationships of Daughters-In-Law? Would Sigrid be frustrated with her own family if they were closer, as Edward argues? How large of a role does distance play in your own family?
10. How did you react to Luke’s refusal of Charlotte’s help? What would you have done it were you?
11. How much of a role does obligation play in Petra’s relationship with Rachel and Anthony? To the rest of the family?
12. How understandable and/or forgivable were Petra’s actions regarding Steve? Is it an affair even if they never had sex?
13. Steve goes from being a source of comfort to Petra to being verbally abusive. Did you predict this shift in their relationship? Were you surprised by their argument, or by Petra’s response to his proposal?
14. Do you think there are any heroes or villains in the book? If so, who are they?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Petra, Anthony, and Marnie are artists in their own right. Plan an art-related activity for the group. Consider visiting a local gallery or museum, taking a drawing class, or visiting a nature preserve to sketch with your book club members.
2. The Minsmere Reserve where Petra meets Steve is a real place. Find photos, maps, and information about the star bird species at Mimsmere by visiting http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/index.aspx.
A CONVERSATION WITH JOANNA TROLLOPE
Daughters-in-Law portrays women from several different generations, ranging from Rachel and Marnie to Petra and Charlotte. How did you go about finding their voices?
I suppose finding the voices of women of different generations is a function of the imagination. While I’m actually writing, I am describing a movie running in my head, complete with sound track, and I’m also conscious of inhabiting each head as a character speaks. So I suppose that what I’m doing is somehow being each person as I make them speak, irrespective of their age or gender.
What are the challenges and conveniences of telling a story from multiple perspectives? How do you decide which viewpoint to tell a certain incident from? For example, why did you focus on Mariella during the lunch debacle at Luke and Charlotte’s?
Just as changes of pace are important in a novel in order to refresh the reader as she or he goes along, so are changes of viewpoint—it’s hard work to read only from one person’s sightline for 400 pages. It also, I think, gives a novel vividness and charm to surprise the reader sometimes with an unexpected viewpoint, and when adults are behaving badly—as in the scene the question cites—that point can be subtly and powerfully made by seeing their conduct through more innocent (though not less knowing!) eyes. So each scene, in my view, is enhanced by being given, as it were, to an often unexpected character as the filter—it gives the narrative validity and energy.
You have written more than 15 novels. How has your creative process changed over the years? Do you see an arc or progression in your work?
I don’t think the way I write has changed hugely—still the months of research, still the same plotting of the first quarter and then the end, still the handwriting—but I think my style has evolved, rather than changed, and is possibly more economical and lighter now. And that, I’m sure, is a direct response to the loyalty of readers that has (over what is now decades!) given me the confidence to pare everything down a bit and emerge with a way of writing that has more impact and less elaboration.
Daughters-in-Law is full of women who find their strength. For example, Petra and Marnie are very different characters who both unexpectedly take control of their lives. Is this a theme you return to often in your work?
I love female strength and the female capacity for endless self re-invention as themes for novels. It never ceases to amaze me how women can go on evolving all their lives, and how many of them go on opening their minds to new ideas and fads and fashions at almost any age. And of course, the longer you live, the more you turn into a person flavored by decades of experience, which in turn often rewards you with the confidence that growing up in a largely (still….) male dominated society (however lovely a lot of those man are!) isn’t there at the beginning. So, acquiring control is still a huge achievement for many, many women and makes a wonderful topic for fiction, as it’s no less than a kind of real triumph.
You once said that you did not see yourself as a feminist writer. What kind of writer do you identify yourself as?
A contemporary writer. If I’m doing anything, I’m trying to chronicle the way we live now—i.e how we live as shaped and sometimes dictated by modern customs and morality. And as modern culture affects all of us, I don’t really think my novels are gender, or sociologically, specific.
Anthony and Petra both turn to nature to find comfort and inspiration. What are your own sources of inspiration?
Other people. I can’t get enough of them, whether it’s people known to me or perfect strangers observed on public transport. All fascinating and illuminating.
Are you an artist yourself? What kind of research did you do for Anthony and Petra’s drawing scenes?
Oh I wish! I can’t draw and I can’t sing and I can’t dance, which is why I am so completely beguiled by people who can! I studied a number of well known bird artists for this novel…and learned a very great deal, but I simply can’t do it myself….
The novel has a marked lack of villains, with the possible exception of Steve. Do you believe there are ever true villains in real life, or are there always extenuating circumstances?
It’s not so much malevolence that makes villains in real life (though there are beasts out there, I know….) as muddle. And I think most people are complicatedly shades of grey, rather than black and white, good or bad. I don’t even think Steve is a villain, I think he’s an inarticulate man who resorts to anger when frustrated and doesn’t have the words or emotional maturity to express himself any other way. The aim was to make him credible, rather than a simple hate figure, which would have been unbelievable and clumsy—someone who arouses fear because he isn’t fully in control of his stronger feelings.
Is there any kind of message you hope readers will take away from Daughters-in-Law?
Only what I hope emerges from all my books, which is that a bit of empathy towards our fellow humans makes living with ourselves and other people a more successful business!
Why did you choose to focus this novel on the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law?
Most women have, or are, a daughter-in-law, even in the loosest sense, and also I can’t help noticing that mothers behave differently to their daughters in law than they do towards their sons-in-law—even if this last statement is a generalization! And I like to investigate topics that apply to very many of us—I am more interested in the common ground than in any arcane situation that only concerns a very few….And I’m at an age where very many of my friends are mothers-in-law!