Bernardine Bishop's novel Unexpected Lessons in Love is a book about living with serious illness, and about the love of and for a mother. It's considered and reflective, amusing and uplifting, and makes an unusual entertainment from what is perhaps unlikely-sounding material.
Cecilia is a retired psychotherapist, tolerant and pragmatic, who meets well-known novelist Helen in the waiting room of a cancer clinic. A warm and supportive friendship develops, one based on their shared experience of illness, and each confides in the other - or not - as they face everything from the daily inconveniences their condition brings to the cliff-edge of mortality over which they necessarily stare.
Cecilia's life has taken a sudden and unexpected turn as her foreign correspondent son Ian has discovered he is the father of a baby whose mother has disappeared, and he looks to Cecilia and her husband Tim to step into the breech, taking on the care of the child. Meanwhile, the "lugubriously humorous" Helen who has "used novel-writing as exorcism ... writing guilt and remorse out of her consciousness", and having almost always been happily independent and free of family ties, now finds herself drawing closer to her own mother who is approaching the end of her life, and gradually comes to reassess what motherhood means.
A comedy of manners and a frank account of both the physical and emotional consequences of cancer diagnosis and treatment, the novel maintains a fine balance between its characters' predicaments, treating with a light hand (though not 'lightly') the finding of a way round "the gravitational force field of worry", and the external demands made on them as 'life goes on'. There is introspection - particularly on the part of Cecilia who analyses thought processes, appreciates others' points of view and anticipates reactions, and at times this aspect can be a little intrusive and over-developed - but there is also a bizarre sub-plot involving psychosis which may either stretch the reader's patience or provide a welcome shift of focus.
Funny, honest, unsentimental and revealing in its account of attitudes to health - "unnoticed until taken away" - there is a great deal of good writing in this sharply observational novel, and I can see why Margaret Drabble said she felt "better for reading it".