The basic premise of The Bad Mother’s Handbook was three generations of the same family living in the same house; the crone, the mother and the maid otherwise known as Nan, Karen and Charlotte. Karen had Charlotte as a teenager, obtained a speedy divorce from Charlotte’s father and had to move back in with her mother. Flash forward to 1997 and the seventeen year-old Charlotte finds herself inconveniently pregnant by her wastrel of a boyfriend Paul. Naturally, chaos ensues. To add interest to the mix, Nan is in the opening stages of Alzheimer’s and lets slip that Karen is adopted. Battling the stress of caring for Nan and furious with Charlotte for repeating her mistakes (and also for generally being a stroppy teenager), Karen reaches for her biological mother to give her the answers she craves. Bad idea, Karen, bad idea. Charlotte struggles to come to terms with what is in store for her as her pregnancy progresses but meets and befriends the frankly wonderful Daniel.
I first encountered Daniel as an eighteen year-old who was frankly Unimpressed with the one boyfriend I had had so far and I have always just thought he was incredibly lovely. Weirdly, when the book was adapted a few years later, they cast Robert Pattinson as him. Yes. That Robert Pattinson. He wasn’t that famous then and it was very much pre-Twilight but it was still kind of weird. They kind of did that thing that they normally do to pretty girls when they have to play Ugly – like Anne Hathaway in the first half of The Princess Diaries – so he had to wear glasses and massive scarves. I think it was mis-casting myself, the whole point was that Daniel was a bit overgrown and cuddly. I don’t think that ‘R-Patz’ (check me out, being down with the kids) really fitted the bill. But hey ho. Daniel is a fish out of water, new in town and kind of a nerd, and very keen to be befriended by Charlotte who finding herself rather adrift from her friends in her pregnant state … inevitably, Daniel has a fairly hefty crush and when Charlotte was finally ready to face up to their relationship, I cheered.
From the way I’m describing it, I realise that The Bad Mother’s Handbook sounds like it has every cliché going but Kate Long is really able to elevate this to a whole new level. I steered clear of the television adaptation because they had Catherine Tate cast as Karen and it just didn’t seem to have caught the original novel’s spirit. It’s actually fairly easy to review Bad Mothers United alongside The Bad Mother’s Handbook because it is a direct continuation. One quick thing though – Bad Mothers United very possibly has the worst and most inaccurate blurb that I have ever seen in my life. First of all it announces that the bad mothers are back ‘ten years on’ – no, not ten, only three and even the ‘Snapshots from the Future’ only takes us six years on from the first novel. And then we are told that this time, the women are ‘united’. Well no, that would be nice, but they’re not … Something tells me that somebody wrote the blurb for this one on the back of an envelope without so much as glancing through the book. Shame!
Bad Mothers United picks up with Karen looking after Charlotte’s son Will while Charlotte is at university in York. Charlotte and Daniel are still together but Charlotte is struggling being so far away from Will and is scratchy in the raw misery of her maternal separation. Long really captures that sense of Charlotte’s awareness of how unreasonable she is being but her inability to stop herself from being unpleasant. Oh Charlotte, that boy loves you. Karen on the other hand is still resolutely single, fending off her randy ex-husband and shouldering the grief of Nan’s recent death. Interspersed between the chapters though are transcripts of taped conversations with Nan while she was in her care home and although Nan is gone, she is definitely not forgotten.
So often what irritates me about chick lit is that the central character is portrayed as a kind of superwoman but of course unaware of her own brilliance. The women of the Cooper family are recognisable fallible humans. In the first instalment, Charlotte was a typically bratty teenager who shouted at Daniel when her pregnancy test came back positive, even though as he desperately pointed out, it hadn’t been him who got her pregnant. Still only in her thirties, Karen was trying to find some kind of meaning in her life. I was sad that the apparent rapprochement between mother and daughter was only temporary but to be fair, that’s life. Relationships do go in phases. It was never going to be easy for Karen to bring up Charlotte’s child. It reminded me of when I was a baby and my mother had to leave me with my aunt for a few weeks while she set up our first house. When she went to collect me again, she confessed that she was jealous to see that my aunt had taught me “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” Apparently I wasn’t word perfect but I gave it a good go. My point is, toddlers are remarkably heartless creatures and will attach themselves to any handy friendly adults. Grown-ups are far more vulnerable.
Will was a very believable toddler, keen on his biscuits and confident as a well-loved child. The scene where his biological grandfather drops by the house with the maintenance money was very well drawn. The reader can feel sorry for poor Mr Bentham, slightly overweight and very lonely, longing for a glimpse of his grandson but without anything to offer other than cash. Karen however is a busy woman and does not have time to do much more than thank him for the money with very little graciousness and close the door again. She’s not a saint and some people might want a further scene where Mr Bentham becomes more involved in the family circle but what Long has portrayed is what millions of families experience. You can only do what you can do – life is too short for the Cooper family to run after the Benthams to make sure they feel included. They have their own problems to be getting on with. Will is far better off with Daniel.
In the first book, Karen sought out her biological mother and discovered Jessie Pilkington. In the second, it is Charlotte’s turn to meet Jessie. Karen acknowledges to Charlotte that guilt is a natural part of parenting – mothers are constantly being told that they are doing it wrong. Yet still, while at different points, all three Coopers are convinced that they are bad mothers, the background menace of Jessie shows the difference between them and the truly Bad Mothers. We see them on the pages of the tabloids, their startled faces in the mug-shots. They excite such fury, these mothers who did not protect their children. By contrast there is the lovely Nan, even in her state of confusion her loving heart shines through. She talks to Charlotte of her wonderful granddaughter who is doing so well and Charlotte tells her that she is glad to hear it. She tells Karen that she is not sure who Karen is but she knows that she loves her very much. It reminded me of my very dear stepgrandmother who passed away this year and how she told me that she was so very sorry about my Grandpa’s then-recent death and that she had been praying for me. It was so hard for her to get out a sentence and she remembered so few names by then but her heart was just as strong and true as ever. We remember those who we love and who loved us – I do truly believe that love does not die.
The part that really got me though was when the grieving Karen discovers that the three year-old Will has been ‘trained’ on the family photo albums by Charlotte. Karen’s ex-husband Steve demonstrates one day when Charlotte is out, pointing to pictures of Nan and asking Will, “Who’s that?” Will knows exactly who it is. It’s Nan. He scores full points and even spots the pictures of the youthful Karen. It made me cry! It gave me real hope of how family members we love can live on for the next generation. It doesn’t matter that Nan died when Will was so little – she will be an important member of his family regardless. Similarly for me, my paternal grandmother passed on when I was two but I have the birthday cards she sent me and I think of her from time to time. Also, one of my Grandma’s cousins died when I was five; he had always been particularly fond of me – I had a special status of Fatherless Waif at this point – and I have never forgotten the interest he took in my life. From when I was very, very small I realised it was important that I did not forget him because he had loved me. This is the love that grants us immortality – by contrast, Karen refuses to speak of Jessie, her silence clearly intended to be ever-lasting and her choice is matched by Charlotte’s. This sense of Things We Don’t Speak Of fascinates me – Jessie is not a story to pass on. Her death will go unmourned and unmentioned. Will will never know who she was, never recognise a photo and so her death will be final.
Kate Long is sounding the trumpet here for women – she is right that they are generally the ones left carrying the can simply because they are the ones who give birth to the babies. Still, I felt like this book was more sympathetic towards the men in their lives – Charlotte realises that she needs to treat Daniel better, Karen decides to love Steve for who he is rather than resent him for who he is not – and the ‘Snapshots from the Future’ made me smile as people say to Charlotte that Will looks just like his Dad. I’ve been told that a few times myself, but I swear it’s only because we both wear glasses. Who knows, perhaps Will will one day raise a pint with his Bentham grandfather but in the meantime he has a happy childhood ahead with Daniel Gale.
I think Kate Long is rather fascinated with causality – the previous book closed considering how far one has to go back to truly find a ’cause’ and in this one, Karen blames the infamous North Atlantic Drift which brings rain to Lancashire for her own teenage pregnancy since without it, she could have had hung around with Steve outdoors rather than in and so would not have had sex with him. Charlotte and Karen most likely have many, many bumps in the road ahead in the decades to come – sons may be sons until they marry but a daughter is a daughter for all of her life. Still, Karen can be overwhelmed with love from only one of her daughter’s smiles and Charlotte finishes the novel reflexively wanting to ring her Mum to tell her some big news. Bad Mothers United just made me want to hear more from the Coopers and to wish them all very best in the world.
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Published by Simon and Schuster on February 28th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General
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