Unexpected Lessons in Love was written in a flurry of creativity during Bernadine Bishop’s cancer remission and its aggressive return. The novel is Bishop’s fourth, although her first in fifty years, published in 2013 when she was 73.
Unexpected Lessons in Love is an odd little novel that’s stylistically gentle yet full of dramatic plot turns. The tone of this novel about one family and their small Venn diagram of friends and acquaintances, is rather old fashioned, the rhythm so smooth as to be almost soporific. But this soothing tempo is at odds with many of the events of the book that take in cancer, a mentally ill mother, an abandoned child, heartbreak, grief and even a rather strange and slightly half hearted kidnapping. Bishop lets these events gently unfold with such calmness that I often found the stillness immensely irritating.
At the heart of the story is Cecilia Banks, a retired psychotherapist in remission from cancer and now reliant on a colostomy – or stoma. She is married to Tim, a benign presence who loves tennis and his computer. Cecilia’s life is further disrupted when her son Ian discovers he is a father to a three-month-old baby, the product of a fling with a beautiful but schizophrenic woman who called herself Leda. It’s bad timing all round as Ian is busy falling in love with an old friend Marina and, as a foreign correspondent, he’s often abroad. Fortunately Cecilia willing takes on the baby (called Cephas, a name that tripped up every sentence it was in, a point Bishop later acknowledges) with few complaints. Completing Cecilia’s close circle is Helen, a woman Cecilia meets at cancer treatment. The two become fast friends, in fact seemingly each others only friends. In addition to this close knit crew, there are also a few other characters that drift into the story, all loosely linked by a thread that leads back to a nun called Sister Diana.
Bishop, who in her hiatus as a writer trained as a psychotherapist, is unflinching in her portrayal of humans at their everyday worse. When Cecilia, a good, little complaining woman notices the glint in her husband Tim’s eyes when he’s around the beautiful Leda, she notes he is happy and dislikes it: “it struck her as ironic that she could honestly say she loved Tim, and yet she hated the look of happiness on his face”. Later she ponders: “it is possessiveness, thought Cecilia sadly, that prevents us from wanting those we love to be happy in their own way”.
Stylishly, Unexpected Lessons in Love Bishop is endearing and it’s rare for a writer to capture the inner workings of the human brain so honestly and accurately. Bishop writes fluidly and truthfully, the novel oscillating between the characters’ inner monologues, their thoughts seamlessly drifting into the narrative – even the cat and baby Cephas’s personal motivations are expressed.
But despite Bishop’s skill as a writer, I didn’t fall for Unexpected Lessons in Love, it was like an Aga saga turned up to too high, its realism blunted by too much drama. I found the tone too languid, the dramatic events so incongruous – it was at once too ordinary and too extraordinary for it to hit the right note with me. The characters were also rather irritating, not unlikable, just rather flimsy and, well, boring. Plus Cecilia’s son, Ian, might be the most annoying man committed to paper, and in a world were Christian Grey exists, that’s saying something.
by Suzanne Elliott