John Murray, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Unexpected Lessons in Love, By Bernardine Bishop

Rules of attraction and affection come under cool scrutiny in this novel of modern manners

Samuel Richardson's novels were rooted in his early jobbing writing as a kind of 18th-century agony uncle. He honed his craft by producing, for people lacking education, a collection of model letters suitable for tricky familial situations involving money and sex. The epistolary masterpieces, Pamela and Clarissa, followed.

A certain kind of English novel continues this didactic tradition. Unexpected Lessons in Love is one of them: as though Bernadine Bishop posed herself a series of questions concerning love, illness, maternity and friendship, then composed this story in order to answer them. It is not written in the form of letters, though it contains quite a few; some of the time it reads like case-notes, appropriately perhaps, since its main protagonist, Cecilia, is a retired psychotherapist.

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.

Having been operated on for a recurrence of anal cancer, Cecilia makes friends with Helen, a novelist, who has survived bowel cancer. Both learn to live with colostomies, and colostomy bags, doing so with humour and irony, at the same time supporting each other with tender honesty. Cecilia's husband Tim is good at tennis and computers rather than feelings. He stands by, however, when Ian turns up with his two month-old baby, Cephas, conceived during a brief fling, dumps him, and scarpers.

Ian, as a foreign correspondent, can't do childcare, and the baby's mother Leda is apparently psychotic. Cecilia's relationship with baby Cephas is described in affectionately detailed, touching close-up. The reader is invited to share her grandmotherly attention that substitutes well for the lost maternal gaze. Marina and Tim finally marry. Marina takes the baby on, while Cecilia continues trying to help Leda.

Images of sisterhood, from nuns to nurses, abound. The sisterliness between Cecilia and Helen veils the novel's fascinating ambivalence towards different kinds of female creativity: motherhood and writing. Helen, a raffish creature who inordinately loves men, drink, cigarettes and sex, is presented as selfish in her self-expression.

She is non-maternal, and neglects her aged mother. She seems like the shadow side of selfless Cecilia, so concerned with women's traditional role as carer, so accepting that Ian must not be "enslaved and ground down by his family". Traditional femininity wins: Helen finally (unbelievably) marries a dull man, bad at sex, who offers to help her diet and cut down on the champagne. I longed for Pamela and Clarissa to spring up and dash off protesting letters.

Michèle Roberts's latest novel is 'Ignorance' (Bloomsbury)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all