With Mother’s Day just around the corner, writewyattuk turns its focus to Bad Mothers United, Kate Long’s newly-published and long-awaited sequel to her best-selling 2004 debut novel, The Bad Mother’s Handbook.
WHILE there seems to be an overwhelming compulsion for the publishing industry to label books and authors, some just don’t tend to fit those artificially-neat genre and category boxes.
And even though the cover art and accompanying blurb of Kate Long’s Bad Mothers United (Simon & Schuster, 2013) suggests straightforward laugh-a-minute chick-lit and that whole gamut of yummyslummymummydom, it’s so much more than that.
However, I can’t help but think that under-sells Kate’s keyboard and pen craft and only tells part of the tale. And this long-awaited sequel to her best-selling debut The Bad Mothers Handbook is multi-stranded for sure.
Both books could so easily fail in the hands of lesser writers, its component parts on the face of it covered well enough elsewhere.
What have we got? Young mum becomes young gran, full of resentment at missed opportunities. Second generation young mum similarly resentful as fate alters life path. Ailing grandma on slippery downward slope via dementia, into old folks’ home. Then there’s Dad, edged out but trying to rekindle his former relationship, and another unwilling to play his part, while an alternative boyfriend takes his place but is largely taken for granted.
But the main difference here is how well those characters are portrayed – drawn from memory and drawn from life, as E H Shepherd put it.
For each character comes over as nothing short of real, yet at the same time this is no cliched window on Northern working class life. There’s the odd kitchen sink and talk of abortion, but that’s about it. For these are believable people leading not-so-ordinary lives, with various ups and downs coming their way yet these core characters offering inspiration from the most mundane existences.
I won’t mention names, but some authors write about the North of England like it’s some sociological project. Alternatively, there are those who just don’t research their subjects. But Kate Long gets it spot on. She’s clearly led that life, or at least understood what makes a working class mum (often with middle class aspirations) tick. And this is no cosy tale of life in the big city, but one hewn from good, honest Lancashire stock and that whole battle to keep afloat while circumstances, society and life in general has a habit of dishing out its worst aspects.
I’ll try not to be too specific about Bad Mothers United or its predecessor, lest you’ve yet to wallow within. You may have seen the accompanying 2007 TV series to The Bad Mother’s Handbook, starring Catherine Tate, Holly Grainger, Anne Reid, Robert Pattinson and Steve Pemberton, among others. If so, you’re ahead of me. But while Kate had a hand in the screenplay, I’m still glad I encountered the book first.
The Bad Mother’s Handbook (2004) followed a year in the lives of Charlotte Cooper, her mum Karen, and her Nan, in 1997 – the year Tony Blair was elected, Princess Diana died, and everything changed for this core trio. Charlotte, at a key point in her A-levels, falls victim to a stray condom, much to the disgust of her mum, now set to be a 33-year-old gran at a point where she’s having to deal with Nan’s ailing health, forced to further put her own aspirations on the back-burner.
There are funny moments, plenty of poignant ones, sad and joyous moments, and real humour among Lancashire’s hill country. In short, three generations of under-valued and less than confident mums get to re-evaluate their own part in the scheme of things and consider whether they’re the bad mothers they think they are.
The author’s realistic touch lends itself to Nan’s recollections of her between-the-wars childhood too, something that also continues into the follow-up as the younger generations look to keep her memory alive.
In certain respects, not much has changed when we return in 2000 for Bad Mothers United. But Charlotte is now commuting between Mum – in part reduced to babysitting duties for her daughter’s toddler Will – in Bank Top and her uni studies in York. As she rides a rollercoaster of resentment, jaded romance and temptations elsewhere, her mum tries her best to stay afloat back home – getting to grips with a series of domestic and not-so domestic crises in love and life.
Like I said, I won’t go much further than that, but I will say that despite the chummy use of words like ‘catastrophic’ on the cover, the whole plot remains feasible throughout, never straying far from realistic. That doesn’t make it any less imaginative though. In fact, it adds to the book’s charm, as Kate so cleverly managed with the original.
What the author does particularly well is subtly tell both sides of each story – through first-person narrative for both mum and daughter – to the point where you understand totally where the main characters are coming from, even if you don’t always agree with their viewpoint.
Along the way, with a number of great twists, there are chances for each to re-evaluate their roles and contemplate just where they might have gone wrong. Yet at no point does that slow down the pace. And throughout all the highs and lows Charlotte and Karen (and in turn Nan) experience, you know full well they’re not the bad mums they think they are.
For more about Kate Long and her books, go to http://www.katelongbooks.com/