Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: THE UNKNOWN BRIDESMAID, by Margaret Forster

The Unknown Bridesmaid is one of the best books about the dark side of childhood I've ever read. It's the story of a girl who grows into a troubled teen and then a deeply dysfunctional adult who helps others without realizing how much help she needs herself.

Julia is raised by a secretive, authoritarian mother who belittles and shuts her daughter out. Nobody will talk about her father, who died when Julia was five. Julia grows up with her mother's sister Maureen, Maureen's beautiful daughter Iris and later Iris's family, consisting of her second husband Carlo and daughters Elsa and Fran. But before there is a family with Carlo there is a wedding to Reginald, Iris's first husband and Reggie, her little son, who die, and nobody will talk about them, either.

This ordinary family holds a lot of secrets, and Julia grows up believing she has the most devastating secret of all. This secret gives her guilt and shame, but it also gives her power. Julia is a deep introvert who cannot find a way to fit into the warm, extroverted family with whom she must live after the sudden death of her withholding mother, who taught her to disdain her cousin.  Her feelings of insignificance are transformed into bullying and aggression towards Elsa, Carlo and Iris when her mother's death leaves her feeling abandoned and alone. As an adult, Julia becomes first a teacher and then a counselor to troubled children, but it takes meeting an unhinged adult who strikes Julia as another version of herself, to get her to face her childhood demons.

Of course in her chosen profession Julia is reliving and dealing with her issues every day, even if she doesn't realize it. And here's the thing. Julia is not a nurturer; she is clinical, detached and strategic, and even to the end she cannot fully understand or admit to the damage she's done to the people who loved her, because she cannot admit her own importance to them. Margaret Forster's genius is convincing us how it happened, how powerless she felt, how frustrated by the silence around her, and how her actions made her feel like she mattered, made her feel like she could have an impact when all around she was told to be quiet, not ask questions, sit on the sidelines. It's painful to see how different things could have been for her. She can't understand, even into middle-aged adulthood, that she did matter to her cousin's family, and to her only friend. It might be too late to undo some of the damage, but not too late to make it better for somebody else.

Forster has written a quiet and devastating novel about how the wounds of childhood carry over into adulthood and how hard it is to let go of the image one has created of oneself, no matter how strenuously others contradict it. And it shows how precarious our lives are, how one person takes a wrong turn when someone else, equally flawed and vulnerable, doesn't. It also offers hope that it doesn't have to be this way, that healing and help are possible, if only one reaches out. It's a tough read and a beautiful one, too.

You'll find yourself thinking back on this book for a long time after you're done reading. It'll definitely show up in my favorites list this year.

It's the 11th book I've read for the 2014 Europa Challenge.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.