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  • Written by Kate Long
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  • Written by Kate Long
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A Novel

Written by Kate LongAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kate Long


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41689-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
The Bad Mother's Handbook Cover

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fiction (20) chick lit (8) family (7) motherhood (6) adoption (5)
fiction (20) chick lit (8) family (7) motherhood (6) adoption (5)



For seventeen-year-old Charlotte Cooper, it’s too late. Despite her best efforts to finish school, tune out her angry, slightly hysterical mother, and cope with her loving but dotty grandmother, she is unexpectedly (now that’s an understatement) pregnant. And don’t even mention the jerk who knocked her up.

Charlotte’s mother, Karen, is trying to convince herself that there are worse things than becoming a grandmother at thirty-three. For instance, there’s wanting to kill Charlotte for the mess she’s made of her life. Between struggling to pay the bills and halfheartedly filling out questionnaires on Internet dating sites, Karen uncovers a scandalous family secret involving her own birth, and then falls back into bed with her sexy ex-husband. So much for perfect timing.

In the meantime, Karen’s mother, Nan, is having a wee bit of trouble with names (sometimes her own). But that doesn’t keep her from retaining a few things she’d rather forget. Of course, Nan knows that everything will work out fine for Charlotte and the baby–these things usually do. Now, if only she could put the pieces of her own fragmented memory together, she might have an interesting tale or two to share.

In this wickedly funny, disarmingly moving novel, three generations of mothers learn that it’s the simplest mistakes that can change your life forever. With wit and wisdom, Kate Long proves that there are as many kinds of mothers as there are daughters, but the love that binds them all is what truly matters.

From the Hardcover edition.



When I was twelve I fell and broke my elbow. It was election day 1929, and we were mucking about on top of the wall by the polling station. It was about six feet up and you were all right as long as you sat astride the copestone, only I’d turned sidesaddle so as to spot the people who’d voted Conservative; my dad said you could see it in their faces. Jimmy nudged me and we started singing:

“Vote! Vote! Vote for Alec Sharrock,

He is sure to win the day.

And we’ll get a salmon tin

And we’ll put the Tory in

And he’ll never see his mother any more.”

I swung my legs to make the words come out better, and the next thing I knew I was sprawled on the ground with my arm underneath me. Jimmy tried to make a sling out of the yellow muslin banners we’d been waving, but I screamed and he started to cry in panic. It hurt so much I was afraid to get up in case I left my arm on the floor.

The following day, when we heard the Labor Party’d got in, Dad got so drunk he couldn’t open the back gate.

“I’ll go and let him in,” Jimmy volunteered.

“You’ll not!” said Mother. “Leave him where he is.”

So I lay on the sofa with my arm all strapped up and watched him struggle. Finally he fell over and my mother drew the curtains on him.

It was funny, we’d never known him to touch a drop before.

His vices lay in other directions.


The day after it happened, everything seemed normal. Even from behind my bedroom door, I could hear Mum going on at Nan. She tries not to get cross, but it’s the only emotion my mother does these days.

“Come on, Nan, it’s time for your bath.”

“I can’t. My arm hurts.”

“No, it doesn’t. You’ve been dreaming again. Come on.”

Ours is a house of lost things; keys, hearing aids, identities. There was a row about sausages this morning. My mum had cooked two sausages for Nan’s dinner and left them on a plate to cool. Then the window cleaner came to the door, and when she got back they’d gone.

“What have you done with them?” she asked her mother (patient voice).

“I han’t touched ’em.”

“Yes, you have, you must have.”

“It were t’ dog.”

“We haven’t got a dog, Nan. Where are they? I just want to know, you’re not in trouble. Have you eaten them?”

“Aye, I might have done. Yesterday. I had ’em for my tea.”

“How can you have had them yesterday when I’ve only just cooked them? God almighty, it’s every little thing.” My mother ran her hand wearily over her face and sighed. It’s something she does a lot.

“By the Christ! There’s no need to shout. You’re a cranky woman. You’re bad-tempered like my daughter, Karen. She blows her top over nothing.”

“I am your daughter Karen,” Mum said.


It was me who found the sausages next day, wrapped in two plastic bags inside the bread bin.

Not that Nan has the monopoly on confusion.

I know my name is Charlotte and that I’m seventeen, but on a bad day that’s as far as it goes. “Be yourself,” people—older people—are always telling me: yeah, right. That’s so easy. Sometimes I do those quizzes in Most! and Scene Nineteen. Are you a Cool Cat or a Desperate Dog and what’s your seduction style; how to tell your personality type by your favorite color, your favorite doodle, the hour of your birth. Do I (a) Believe this crap? (b) Treat it with the contempt it deserves? Depends on my mood, really.

Sometimes Nan thinks I am her own childhood reincarnated. “Bless her,” she says, rooting for a mint, “her father beat her till she were sick on t’ floor and then he beat her again. He ran off and her mother had to tek in washin’. Poor lamb. Have a toffee.”

This drives my mum up the wall, round the bend, and back again. She doesn’t like to see good sympathy going to waste, particularly in my direction, because she thinks I live the Life of Riley.

“You have chances I never had,” she tells me. “Education’s everything. How much homework have you got tonight?” She bought me a personal organizer for Christmas but I lost it—I haven’t had the nerve to tell her yet. “You must make something of your life. Don’t make the mistake I made.”

Since I am part of her Mistake (“I was a mother by the age of sixteen, divorced at twenty-one”), this leaves me in an unusual position: I am also her redeemer, the reassurance that her life has not in fact been wasted. My future successes will be hers, and people will say to me, “Your mother was a clever woman. She gave up a lot for you.” Or so she hopes.

Actually, I’m in a bit of a mess.

When Nan walked in on me and Paul Bentham having sex yesterday afternoon she didn’t say a word. She’s surprisingly mobile, despite the bag. The colostomy was done dog’s years ago, pre-me, to get rid of galloping cancer.

“The Queen Mother has one, you know!” the consultant had shouted.

“Ooh. Swanky,” replied Nan, impressed. “Well, Ivy Seddon reckons Cliff Richard has one, an’ he dances about all over.”

I thought she might let it slip that evening while we were watching Coronation Street. Suddenly she said, “She were too young, she didn’t know what she were doing. I towd her, Musn’t fret, I’ll tek care of it.” My mum, coming in with a cup of tea for her, banged the saucer down so that the tea spilled on the cloth, and gave me a look.

Christ, Nan, please don’t say anything or I’m done for. (A thirty-three-year-old woman was today formally accused of bludgeoning to death her teenage daughter with what police believe may have been a personal organizer. Neighbors reported hearing raised voices late into the night.)

It still hurts a bit. I didn’t know it would hurt like that. I knew there’d be blood because I read somewhere about them hanging the bedsheets out of the window in olden days so that all and sundry could see the bride had been virgo intacta. I used an old T-shirt and rinsed it out afterward; if she asks, I’ll tell my mother it was a nosebleed.

I’m not a slut. It’s just that there’s not a lot to do around here. You can walk through Bank Top in fifteen minutes, a small dull village hunching along the ridge of a hill and sprawling down the sides in two big estates. From the highest point it affords panoramic views of industrial Lancashire: factories, warehouses, rows and rows of red-brick terraces and, on the horizon, the faint gray-green line of millstone-grit moorland. To the south there’s the television mast where a German plane is supposed to have come down fifty years ago; to the north there’s Blackpool Tower, just visible on the skyline. I used to spend hours squinting to see the illuminations, but they’re too far away.

There are three types of housing in Bank Top. Small Victorian houses, two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs, line the main street, while on the fringes of the village it’s all modern boxes with garages and uniform front lawns. None of the people in these prestige developments talk to each other, but you can hear everything your neighbor’s doing through the cardboard walls, apparently. Beneath these shiny new houses the foundations shift and grumble over defunct mine shafts—the last pit closed forty years ago—making Bank Top a sink village in every sense.

Then there are the semi-detached duplexes built in the thirties as public housing, where dogs roam free and shit on the pavement with impunity. This is where we live. We bought our house in the boom of ’84 (also Divorce Year), and my mother celebrated by having a Georgian front door fitted and mock leaded lights on the windows. The front storage room, upstairs which is my bedroom and minute, looks out over the Working Men’s Club parking lot; some odd things go on there on a Saturday night, I can tell you.

In the center of the village is the church and the community center and a rubbish row of shops, a newsstand, a launderette, a grocery store. Two pubs, more or less opposite each other, battle it out, but one is for old people and families from the new neighborhoods with quiz nights and chicken tikka pizza, and the other’s rough as rats. I don’t go in either. For kicks, I get the bus to Wigan from a bus shelter smelling of pee. Fuck off, it says over the lintel, so I generally do.

I don’t belong in this village at all. Actually, I don’t know where I do belong. Another planet, maybe.

• • •

So there I was, on my back, entirely naked and rigid as a corpse, when Nan totters into my bedroom and says to Paul, “A horse has just gone past the landing window.”

“Which way did it go?” asks Paul.

“Which way did it go?” I said later. “What are you, mad too?”

“I was only trying to make conversation.” He shrugged his bony shoulders under the sheets. “What’s up with her? Is she mental, like?”

“No more than a lot of people,” I said, a bit sharply. I get defensive about her, even though she is a nuisance. “Some days she’s more with it than me. She’s just old. You might be like that when you’re old.”

“I’d shoot myself first.”

“No, you wouldn’t. That’s what everyone says, but they wouldn’t.”

Part of the problem in this house is hormones. There are too many undiluted women for one small ex-council house. Huge clouds of supercharged estrogen drift about and react, sending showers of sparks into the atmosphere; the air prickles with it. Nan hasn’t got any left, of course, although she hung on to hers longer than most (had my mum at forty-six! Didn’t realize people even had sex at that age), but I’ve got more than I know what to do with. Certainly more than my mother knows what to do with. She suspects I have tart DNA (passed on from her, presumably). If she finds out I’ve been having sex she will kill me. Really. This would be my worst nightmare: Mum, finding out:

Bloody bloody bloody hell. Bloody Nan for making a mess on the bed. Again. Not her fault but I don’t care, nobody cares about me. Come off, you bloody fitted sheet, bastard son of a sheet—hell. Trailing this armload off to the washing basket and—hell, I’ve dropped a pair of tights—hell, I’ve dropped a pair of underwear trying to pick up the tights, whole bloody lot’s gone now, all over the floor. Navy sock in with the whites, that was a close shave. Charlotte will not put her dirty clothes in the right baskets; what kind of a slut have I produced? You’d think she’d have more consideration. Dying for a cup of tea, cotton with prewash, heavily soiled, everything’s heavily soiled in this house. Not Nan’s fault, that bloody tape doesn’t stick to her skin if she gets Nivea under it. What’s this, what’s this? What’s just fallen out of the dirty pillowcase onto the floor?

Oh, Jesus, it’s a condom. Charlotte’s been having sex.

From the Hardcover edition.
Kate Long|Author Q&A

About Kate Long

Kate Long - The Bad Mother's Handbook

Photo © Jerry Bauer

KATE LONG lives in Shropshire, England. This is her first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Reader’s Guide

A Conversation with Kate Long
Printed with permission from Kinokuniya, Japan

Kate Long wrote her first novel in her spare time, at night after her children were asleep or on the weekends. It became an instant number-one bestseller in her native England, was serialized on a national radio station, and sold in overtwenty-three countries, including Japan. Here she doesan interview for the Japanese bookstore, Kinokuniyu.

Q: Briefly, where were you born and brought up? Where did you go to school? Which university did you go to and what did you study?

A: I was born in Pinner, England, adopted at six weeks and brought up in Wigan. I spent seven miserable years not fitting in at the local primary, then won a scholarship to Bolton School, an independent girls’ school, which is where Monica Ali went. I loved it there. I left to do a degree in English Literature at Bristol University, and won several prizes there for academic study. I was invited to stay on and do a Masters in Literature or Ph.D. but I’d had enough of academia by then and wanted a break.

Q: What made you decide to be a teacher? How long did you teach, and what age groups and subjects did you teach? Would you say a career as an English teacher is a good foundation for a novelist? When did you decide to give up teaching, and was it a hard decision to make?

A: I’d been helping out in classrooms for as long as I could remember–mainly my mum’s, but also when I was at Bolton School in their prep department. I liked it, it was fun. At university I visited a local primary every Wednesday afternoon and took groups for extra reading or math work. In my final year it occurred to me I could do this and get paid for it. So I applied to Rolle College at Exmouth, and got a degree in junior teaching. My first job was in a primary school in Guildford where I stayed for two years, and then I went to the cinema and saw Dead Poets’ Society and decided I wanted to move into secondary teaching and use my degree again. So I got a position in a small independent high school outside Chester and taught English. I stayed there for thirteen years and really loved it. It was a wrench (and a risk!) to leave teaching but I just couldn’t do two jobs and look after the family as well. I now do an afternoon a week in my son’s primary school–can’t leave the education system alone. Teaching’s a great career base for a novelist because you’re training in communication all the time, and also you have the summer holidays in which to get down to some serious writing.

Q: Did you write stories as a child? When did you take up writing seriously and what prompted you to do so?

A: I’ve been officially “good at English” since I was young. I was inspired by Kes–it’s a film about a poor boy who brings up a kestrel (a hawklike bird) and how his relationship with the bird transforms his life–and I wrote a poem about a kestrel and was short-listed for a competition with it–I’d have been about thirteen. It was like a switch going on, seeing that film. And because I was a complete loner till I was eleven, always had my nose in a book. I might have started writing because I went on a teaching course in about 1990, 1992, and did some fiction writing there and got enthusiastic feedback from the group. Or I might have started because I used to suffer from insomnia. Then again, it might have been the moment I picked up a glossy magazine and saw a story in it by someone I went to university with. (How dare she?) It was probably a combination of all three.

Q: Can you describe the process of writing The Bad Mother’s Handbook?

A: I’d read several books that were about “juggling mums” but, disappointingly, they all depicted women from wealthy, upper-middle-class backgrounds. So I had a bit of a mission; I wanted to write about the lower-middle-class mum, and also what it’s like to be a carer for a disabled person. I suppose I wanted to say, “Our lives are important too, us ordinary, unglamorous folk.” It took me a summer holiday to write about 80 percent of it, and then another year to finish and polish. Not only was I teaching in that year, but I had a young child and an infant to look after, so I used to have to write in the evenings after the boys were in bed–as long as I didn’t have a pile of papers to grade or I wasn’t out at a parents’ evening. But only having a small slot like this in which to write was actually a help because it stopped my procrastinating.

Q: Tell me about your typical writing day, when/how often/ how much do you typically write?

A: It takes me about eight or nine months to prepare a manuscript to the point where it’s fit to submit to my agent. I do about 3,000 words a week, about 600 words Monday—Friday mornings, and the odd sentence or two on the weekends. If I don’t write regularly I have trouble getting back into a rhythm.

Q: How do you begin a novel? Do you do research?

A: I have to write a synopsis first. But I wouldn’t embark on something as long and complex as a novel without having it pretty well planned out first. I do change direction sometimes as the novel develops, yes, but never dramatically. Like most writers, I find my characters arrive fully formed, but I still have to sit down before I start writing and fix their details; I use a set of questions, like a resumŽ, to help me do this. That way I don’t make so many factual errors, such as accidentally changing someone’s age by putting in the wrong date for them starting school. I have done bits and pieces of research; my optician has told me everything I needed to know about age-related macular degeneration, for instance, and I spent a lot of time watching reality TV for the background to the third novel. I find if you ask, people are usually prepared to tell you about their jobs or experiences, and of course the internet is wonderful. I’ve been in touch with a lady I found online, and she’s been able to tell me some details about what it was like to grow up in Wigan, England, in the 1920s. And a lot of the anecdotes in TBMH came from tape recordings of my grandparents.

Q: Was your second novel already written when you got the publishing deal? Can you give me a brief idea of what the book is about? What are its main themes?

A: Here’s the official description of my second book, which Ballantine will publish in 2007:
Katherine’s father, Poll’s adored only son, was killed in a car crash when Katherine was a baby. According to Poll, the crash was the fault of Katherine’s mother, who disappeared shortly afterwards, never to be seen again. Poll is pushing seventy, half-blind, and utterly poisonous. Her ambition is for things to stay exactly the same forever, and for Katherine never to leave their small town of Bank Top; indeed for her to leave the house only when strictly necessary. Katherine has other ideas, especially when on her birthday she receives a mysterious parcel of glamorous, grown-up clothes–so unlike the ones Poll makes her wear. And then the handsome and self-assured Callum turns up, claiming to be a cousin she never knew she had. Katherine can feel that change is coming; the omens are all around her. In the meantime, she cleans up after Poll, revises for her exams, watches daytime television, and surfs the net at the library trying to find out how to be bulimic. What she doesn’t quite realize yet is that life won’t always wait for you to catch up.

Q: Do you have any favorite authors who have particularly inspired you?

A: Alan Garner is a writer who I deeply admire, and Jeanette Winterson. But the one who switched me on and made me want to write is Kate Atkinson, possibly because her style is so fresh, possibly because I happened to read her at the “right time.” I know she too wrote while bringing up small children. And of course I had a background in the classics–Austen, the Bront‘s, Dickens, Hardy, et cetera. I’d say immersing yourself in quality writing–poetry and prose–is the best thing any aspiring writer can do, because you can’t help but absorb good practice. Read widely, read for enjoyment.

Q: Now that you have established a new career as a novelist, how real does it all feel to you? Did you expect, five years ago, to be where you are today? Where would you like to be, in your writing career, in five years’ time?

A: The exciting thing is, I don’t know where I’ll be in five years’ time. It could all have bombed, in which case I can say I had a good bash at it and it was fun while it lasted. It might carry on at the same pitch, which would be fantastic. I never expected to get published in the first place because the odds are so stacked against it. Does it seem real? Well, light is slowly dawning and I’m not getting bouts of panic like I used to. I hate to sound like a ’70s car sticker, but I think we all of us have to take each day as it comes.



Advance praise for The Bad Mother’s Handbook

“The Bad Mother’s Handbook reminds us that there is neither the perfect time nor the perfect way to be a mother, and that life, in fact, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. For the sheer laughter and love and crankiness of the entire parenting endeavor, spend some time with the three generations of Cooper women. This is a book for anyone who’s ever been part of a family (and you know who you are).”
–Whitney Otto, author of How to Make an American Quilt and A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity

“Precious few are ever truly ready to become a mother. For the rest of us, thank God, there is The Bad Mother’s Handbook. In a juggling act as impressive as motherhood itself, Kate Long manages to brilliantly balance equal parts heartbreak and hilarity in a novel that you will love unconditionally.”
–Sarah Bird, author of The Yokota Officers Club

“The Bad Mother’s Handbook is a bittersweet comedy, a glimpse into the lives of three generations of women that gives the reader a poignant reminder of the highs, the lows, and the sheer bewilderment we all experience in love, life and growing up. A must read for mothers and daughters everywhere.”
–Gemma Townley, author of When in Rome . . .

“This is a book to press tearfully on all your friends saying how much it will make them laugh. Kudos to Kate Long!”
–Sarah Salway, author of The ABCs of Love

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How are the sections in Nan’s perspective different from what you’d expect? How did they affect your understanding of Nan throughout the book?

2. Karen says she feels she’s been living the wrong life. Have you ever felt the same way?

3. Do you think that discovering the truth about her birth mother helped Karen make her life “right”? How?

4. Do you think Charlotte is an admirable character?

5. Compare the men in the novel: Paul, Danny, Mr. F., and Steve. Do these characters remind you of people you know? Are they realistic?

6. Did you expect Karen’s relationship with Mr. F. to turn out differently? Why do you think the author chose to end this way?

7. Which character do you identify with the most: Karen or Charlotte? Why?

8. Was Karen too hard on Charlotte? How do you think you would have reacted in Karen’s situation?

9. What, if anything, do all three women–Nan, Karen, and Charlotte–have in common?

10. Do you think this book has a surprise ending? If you had to write an alternate ending, what would you write?

11. What does the novel have to say about the choices we make in life, or that are made for us?

12. According to the novel, has life gotten easier for Western women over the twentieth century, or harder? Do you agree with the novel’s presentation?

13. Do you think The Bad Mother’s Handbook is an appropriate title?

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