Fiction Unexpected

Published on January 1st, 2013


Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop

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Blurb: Cecilia Banks has a great deal on her plate. But when her son Ian turns up on her doostep with the unexpected consequence of a brief fling, she feels she has no choice but to take the baby into her life. Cephas’s arrival is the latest of many challenges Cecilia has to face. There is the matter of her cancer, for a start, an illness shared with her novelist friend Helen. Then there is Helen herself, whose observations of Cecilia’s family life reveal a somewhat ambivalent attitude to motherhood. Meanwhile Tim, Cecilia’s husband, is taking self-effacement to extremes, and Ian, unless he gets on with it, will throw away his best chance at happiness. Cecilia, however, does not have to manage alone. In a convent in Hastings sits Sister Diana Clegg who holds the ties that bind everyone not only to each other, but to strangers as yet unmet (Atlantic Books)

Jane Housham, The Guardian

“It’s impossible to recommend the late Bernardine Bishop‘s wondrous book too highly. Something extraordinary is imparted by its pages, too special to be glibly labelled, but along the lines of wisdom and hope and belief in the capacity of human beings to learn and change. Extraordinary, too, are the honesty and frankness with which cancer is dealt with in all its frightening reality.”

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Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

Advertisers talk about the USP, the Unique Selling Point. This is a book with four powerful anti-SPs – mortality, disfigurement, “female troubles” and sex in later life. All the more impressive that it offers such a rich range of pleasures … The ability to build tension, to move towards the big scene, is a significant and routinely admired part of the novelist’s craft. More valuable is the ability, shown a number of times in Unexpected Lessons in Love, to make anti-climax sing. 

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Kate Saunders, The Times

Bishop treats a fearful subject with an extraordinary lightness of touch; her humour and her emotional wisdom make this a delightful and humane novel.

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David Robson, The Daily Telegraph

The novel should appeal to Joanna Trollope fans, with its soap-like plot twists, well-drawn minor characters and earnest vignettes of middle-class women dealing with moral conundrums. Should so-and-so be allowed to meet her real mother? What visiting rights should step-parents have? The result is a tad formulaic at times, and there are a tiresome number of minor feline characters; but Bishop is a fine, intelligent writer, capable of handling moral and philosophical themes with a light touch.

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Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

Unexpected Lessons in Love is a wonderful novel, one of those rare books which leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the human heart. It actually offers what its title proposes. Not that there is anything even remotely chocolate-boxy: herein are colostomy bags and whether sex is possible following their advent (one character wonders, vaguely, whether she ‘even has a vagina’ following surgery), an amusingly solipsistic novelist, a war correspondent, an ancient nun, a schizophrenic and a couple of babies, both brilliantly and unsentimentally brought to life on the page … [But] it isn’t perfect.

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Elizabeth Buchan, The Sunday Times

Family, love affairs and misunderstandings are the stuff of many novels but, a cut above the rest, Bishop’s effortlessly graceful writing buoys up a plot that connects colostomies (there is squeamish detail), ­madness, cats, extreme selfish behaviour and unwanted babies. 

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Michele Roberts, The Independent

The omniscient narrator peeping over Cecilia’s shoulder likes to sum things up briskly. Cecilia’s son and his admirer are neatly dispatched: “Ian was forty, Marina thirty-five. Both were goodlooking and confident… She loved him more than she thought it good for him to know. He took her for granted…” This narrative style, plain to the point of occasional banality, allows a reviewer to précis the story, since a lot of the time Cecilia is doing that.

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