Kate Long’s novel The Bad Mother’s Handbook, introduces three generations of women trying to exist in the same household. Set in working class England, the novel presents three distinct women’s voices. The family dynamics are both entertaining and heartbreaking. With cramped quarters and one bathroom, the three women find themselves butting heads on a regular basis.
We meet Karen at age 33 as a divorced teaching assistant. She finds herself sandwiched as a caregiver to her mother and a battleaxe to her pregnant teenage daughter. Karen’s mother, known as Nan, is an 81 year old widow prone to bouts of senility and lucidity. She hides food, steals the mail and supplies a good amount of the comic relief. Nan’s childhood flashbacks serve to both fill in the family’s history blanks and cement the bonds between the three women. Karen’s daughter, Charlotte is an intelligent 17 year old who is desperately trying to find her place in the world. Her mother tells her, “You spend too much time in your own head”. Feeling neglected and bored, Charlotte becomes easily distracted by boys and the party scene. In an awful twist of fate both mother and daughter find out they both dated the same man. Both mother and daughter find themselves stubbornly closed off from each other, all the while wishing for a stronger relationship. When Charlotte finds herself heartbroken and pregnant, the tension between mother and daughter grows even more strained. When Karen tells her she’s not fit to be a mother, Charlotte yells, “At least I won’t try and make it responsible for my own shortcomings!” Karen sees her daughter’s potential and future as “squashed dreams”. Karen sees Charlotte repeating her own history of teen pregnancy. Nan’s enthusiasm toward the upcoming birth makes Karen grow even more frustrated as she feels her control slipping away.
To add to the household upheaval, both daughter and mother find out that Nan has been keeping an adoption secret. This revelation poses several challenges for the women as they search for Karen’s birth mother and their own identities. With feelings of regret and resentment, Karen questions her loyalty and ability to be both a dutiful daughter and a decent mother. Karen acknowledges her shortcomings and jokes to herself that she must be taking notes from the imaginary “Bad Mother’s Handbook”.
Long’s novel is mainly about the mother-daughter relationships but there are good male characters namely Karen’s ex-husband Steve and Charlotte’s boyfriend Daniel. The author manages to write a story that is both heart wrenching and humorous; a story about drifting apart and coming back again. A “robin hood” good read with plenty of cockney slang; you can hear the accents that go with the dialect.
Mother’s really only want what’s best for their children. Karen’s wish was for her daughter to learn from her mistakes. Karen later apologizes to Charlotte, “I’ve been rotten to you over this pregnancy. I only wanted you to have a happy life.” Truth be told, mothers can’t prevent their children from making their own mistakes. As they make their way in the world it can be hard to just stand by and not interfere. The key to a good mother-daughter relationship is to be supportive and try not to judge your daughter as a reflection of yourself.
Something to think about...
Wanda Lynne Young