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I'm a big fan of Margaret Forster; she manages to write eloquently on a number of different subjects, this means that some topics will be more of interest than others. In The Unknown Bridesmaid the story revolves around a child psychologist, Julia which I found immensely readable.

The story is written from Julia's perspective both in the present day revolving around her caseload of troubled young girls and her past; starting from the time she was asked to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Margaret Forster has a particular skill in depicting family relationships, not the sugar coated ones but the real life misunderstandings and difficulties that beset most families at one time or another. Julia spent the run up to the wedding terrified that this opportunity was going to be snatched away from her due to her mother's anxiety. As Julia grows she spends more time with Iris and soon a terrible event changes the course of her life forever.

This book has themes of childhood memories, jealousy and guilt running through its pages. There are some wonderful characters although not necessarily likable ones.

This is an absorbing tale, well written with a real understanding of how a child processes information and memories. The only criticism I have is that the girls in Julia's caseload seemed to be solved in a very simplistic manner, I presume this was to illustrate that all the girls needed was the wisdom of Julia's advice but I found it a little bit too dismissive. Despite this it was well worth a read and a good example of how well Margaret Forster writes and her immense skill at handling difficult subjects.
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2014
As a child, Julia is asked to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of her cousin Iris. This is the beginning of the complicated relationship between the two which is central to the plot of this novel. While Julia is still young, a tragedy occurs within the family, and she decides to keep secret her part in it. When her mother dies, leaving her orphaned, Julia is sent to live with Iris and her husband and daughters, and her relationships with this family cause her to behave in such a way as to necessitate the keeping of further secrets. It is these secrets which will affect her deeply for many years to come, and which lead to her eventual choice of a career working with disturbed children.

The novel cleverly builds up the tension, leading the reader to expect all kinds of possible outcomes, or even further secrets, and it makes for a gripping read. Julia grows from a disturbed child into a solitary, self-contained adult. Unable (or unwilling) to bond with Iris and her family, and with few friends, she is not really likeable, and yet I had a certain sympathy for her, and really wanted to know what was going to happen. I have loved all of Margaret Forster's novels, and while this is not my favourite, I enjoyed it very much, and have no hesitation in recommending it.
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Margaret Forster's latest novel 'The Unknown Bridesmaid' centres on Julia, a child psychologist, who works with difficult children - either those from broken homes who have had traumatic experiences which are causing their challenging behaviour, or children from seemingly ordinary backgrounds whose behaviour, for some reason, is causing their parents considerable worry. But for whatever reason, and whoever Julia sees in her consulting rooms, she usually seems to be able to discover what is causing the problem, and very quickly and efficiently too - you could say Julia has a knack with troubled children, but Julia knows what it is like to be troubled for her own childhood was far from settled.

When Julia was eight, she was invited to be a bridesmaid for her beautiful cousin Iris, but although Julia was excited and very much looking forward to the wedding, the day was not quite as exciting and pleasurable as Julia had hoped for. In fact Julia's life seemed to take a downturn from that moment on - especially when, some months later, on a hot summer's day, Julia decided to secretly take out Iris's baby son in his unwieldy pram and something happened which has haunted Julia for years afterwards. (No spoilers, we learn this at the beginning of the novel). But it is not this incident alone that has caused problems for Julia - and, as we read on, we learn that it's not just Julia who has suffered from the consequences; and when Julia's troubled past life starts to detrimentally encroach into her present life, is she able she confront her past and cope with it, or does everything start to unravel?

Moving backwards and forwards in time, Margaret Forster gradually reveals to the reader details about Julia's unsettled past life and, as she looks into the nature of the inner child, she deftly shows us how what has happened to Julia in her formative years, has significantly affected her ability to relate to those close to her. It is interesting how the author develops her story and how, when we first read about Julia, we feel a natural sympathy towards this sensitive child but, as we read on and more about Julia's psyche is revealed, we find ourselves wondering about her motives and anticipating just how this story will finally conclude. I was drawn into Julia's life the moment I started reading and finished this novel in one sitting, and although I don't consider this to be one of Forster's best novels, I did find it an interesting, rather edgy and absorbing story.

4 Stars

Also recommended by the same author:
Keeping the World Away
Shadow Baby
Private Papers
Over
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VINE VOICEon 31 May 2014
I've often questioned if those who are haunted by demons are drawn to psychology; Julia seems to epitomise such a sufferer. Once again guilt is laid at the door of the mother. So there is nothing new about this plot. Usually I enjoy a novel which dips in and out of past and present but I found this rather too meandering. The children Julia saw as her patients were "thin", not quite real, and their treatment brief and unconvincing as though some sort of magic was being cast. The reader could feel the moments of tension between Julia and her mother, the way in which Julia suppressed her feelimngs was almost tangible. But for me the story didn't hang together. The joins were too obvious. I'm new to Margaret Forster and not sure I shall pursue her on my wishlist. This is almost a "Misery Memoir" which is not my genre of choice. I can see its appeal but it didn't do it for me. There was no grip, though plenty of drama.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 16 April 2016
The author has an uncanny knack of taking what seem to be the most ordinary of circumstances and the most ordinary of people, and turning their story into a narrative which has the reader scrabbling to turn the pages and scan the words faster. You are, despite yourself, drawn boots and all into a Margaret Forster book, and find yourself living the life of at least one of the characters in the book.

In this book, as in many of Margaret Forsters', there is one strong protagonist from whose perspective much of the story is seen. Julia, at eight years of age, is asked to be bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Iris' marriage and the aftermath is seen by us through Julia's eyes, and as the years go by, and Julia gets older, we see her life still through her perspective. But cutting back and forth between that section of the narrative, is a Julia some forty years older, who is, as we discover, working with troubled children. These children dip in and out of the narrative as they are seen in her work by Julia, and we never really get any resolution on their situations, but that's exactly how Julia's life seems to go, so again we live the narrative through Julia's perspective.

As the past catches up to the future, the threads of Julia's life become more evident to the reader, and we can see that the story is heading for - a confrontation? A revelation? Well, you have to read the story to find that out. This is a thought-provoking read, one that you find yourself thinking about long after you've turned the last page. Wonderfully engaging, beautifully written, and very thoughtful. Totally recommended.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 16 April 2016
The author has an uncanny knack of taking what seem to be the most ordinary of circumstances and the most ordinary of people, and turning their story into a narrative which has the reader scrabbling to turn the pages and scan the words faster. You are, despite yourself, drawn boots and all into a Margaret Forster book, and find yourself living the life of at least one of the characters in the book.

In this book, as in many of Margaret Forsters', there is one strong protagonist from whose perspective much of the story is seen. Julia, at eight years of age, is asked to be bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Iris' marriage and the aftermath is seen by us through Julia's eyes, and as the years go by, and Julia gets older, we see her life still through her perspective. But cutting back and forth between that section of the narrative, is a Julia some forty years older, who is, as we discover, working with troubled children. These children dip in and out of the narrative as they are seen in her work by Julia, and we never really get any resolution on their situations, but that's exactly how Julia's life seems to go, so again we live the narrative through Julia's perspective.

As the past catches up to the future, the threads of Julia's life become more evident to the reader, and we can see that the story is heading for - a confrontation? A revelation? Well, you have to read the story to find that out. This is a thought-provoking read, one that you find yourself thinking about long after you've turned the last page. Wonderfully engaging, beautifully written, and very thoughtful. Totally recommended.
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on 1 May 2015
I have read most if not all of Margaret Fosters books. They have been a delight and a rich seam of a deep understanding of the human mind and frailty. All of them were page turners for me and I loved both the biographies and the fictions equally. It is therefore with a deep sense of sadness and disappointment to have not enjoyed "The Unknown Bridesmaid" with the same extent of satisfaction as I have enjoyed her previous books.

I was not comfortable with the way her narrative jumped back and forward. Had she been an unknown writer to me I may have given up following the first 20% of the book.
There were no redeeming features or uplifting outcomes of hope in the latter part of the book. By the time I had completed it I was glad to be rid of it and felt I had fulfilled my obligation to someone who has been one of my favourite writers for a great many years.
I am left with difficulty in understanding what the message was that she was trying to convey to the reader. I understand how she was trying to show the way the mind can work and may be influenced for good or evil by events outwith the central character's control. But for me the story of numerous misfortunes to her and the lack of any endeavour or warmth in the character left me not only cold but confused regarding the outcome. Was it showing misery that many people endure. Or was it the need to show a lack of compassion in the human spirit?
I have awarded it a generous three stars but to be accurate the third star is really in respect to the author and her previous wonderful literature she has produced.
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on 11 April 2013
I have always liked Margaret Forster and read this quickly. Other reviewers have commented on the fact that Julia is not a very likeable heroine, and I found that too, and she doesn't improve as she grows older. I liked the short accounts of her problem patients, though, as an retired counsellor, I wondered at the very short time she seemed to spend with each of them and at the apparently good results she achieved (though we never really hear what happens to any of her clients after she has seen them).

After I'd finished it I felt very disappointed, but I found myself thinking about the book for several days afterwards and I gradually revised my opinion of it and I now think it a good and insightful story of a very damaged child. Julia doesn't improve as she grows older - she has been too damaged in the past and she cannot change - but she is aware that she is damaged and she does the job she does because she hopes to stop other children going down the same path by offering help at a decisive time in their lives when it might help them to change the direction their lives are going in. Perhaps she doesn't need to spend long with them - she just needs to give them some alternatives. (And, of course, short term therapy would reflect our current financial pressures).
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on 15 March 2013
I managed to devour all 234 pages of Margaret Forster's The Unknown Bridesmaid at one go...so riveting was her story and told as always in a crisp, straightforward style, that stays refreshing, precious and memorable to the senses.

Also, the beautiful part to a classic Forster novel is in taking comfort that not all family relationships are perfect, that they are more likely to be sadly mutilated, damaged and definitely frayed at some point, at the edges. The solution would lie in survival; the art of plodding through everyday motions with cautious ferocity and grim fortitude. In fact, the novelist goes to great pains to exhibit that noisy or colourful clamour in a home may be regarded as anything but cosy. There may just be one skeleton too many locked in a closet, to be revealed a little at a time and that superficial pretensions to social relationships and the fragile threads that hold unlikely people together - whether they be tiresome family aunts or misunderstood friends - may actually prove to be more of a necessary evil, when measured in the bigger scheme of things.

In The Unknown Bridesmaid, Forster sketches a profound childhood story of a successful 48-year old child psychologist, Julia whose job it is to counsel troubled children with expert ease. The children that are summoned at different times to Julia's side all open painful, little windows that gently reveal the lack of real understanding that adults - especially those caught in difficult aspects of a crisis - often appear to have over their own children, already laden with complicated temperaments. Mothers often appear to be brittle in tone, are easily reproachful and many a-time, a confused lot.

But Julia's story is itself not perfect. Without giving anything away and through various episodes, Julia harbours a strange guilt and fear that may be held similar to those of the children she so kindly talks to. As a reader, I found Julia's childhood character hardly endearing. This, deliberately made so by Forster. But Julia wrestles well with her demons and becomes extremely likeable in adulthood as Forster takes us on Julia's clandestine journey of loneliness and detachment. As the story progresses, there is a clear touch of inspiration. Like building blocks, the exposition scenes where the past interjects with the present, all fit neatly into the other.

I particularly liked the major scenes that depicted the volatile relationship between Julia's middle-aged mother and her aunt. The earlier hostility and grumblings that are tossed back and forth between the two grudging sisters, would later translate through unexpected family troubles, into a rough kindness, a series of comforting dialogues and the confirmation of a faithful kinship. The Unknown Bridesmaid is a perfect novel for any reader who appreciates complete honesty in family relationships.
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The book opens with an invitation to a wedding, not just any old invitation, but Julia is to be bridesmaid and although it is her cousin Iris's wedding the whole idea is treated as an inconvenience and burden by Julia's mother. The only child of a widow, Julia is kept in the dark about everything; she is not allowed to ask questions or even decide what to eat or what to wear. This secrecy becomes Julia's watchword and eventual way of life.

Julia is a mean-spirited, joyless child growing into a mean-spirited, joyless woman who harbours a terrible secret from her childhood. This secret doesn't seem to worry her, she just lives with it, sneaking and snooping her way through life. She eventually becomes a child psychologist and the book is sprinkled with some of her cases - none of which is ever resolved, so these passages seemed rather pointless. Obviously the author is attempting to draw comparisons between these "problem" children and Julia, but it's a heavy-handed way of doing so which, for me, doesn't work.

I have long been a fan of Margaret Forster but I really disliked this novel for several reasons: the writing is clunky and awkward. Take this example:

"So Julia reckoned she would have had to have been accused of, in some way, casting Carlo in a bad light, without Carlo being responsible for whatever was alleged to have happened"

There are also many instances of unnecessary details which feel like padding : " She made tea, and took a slice of bread from the bread bin and popped it in the toaster". Why not just say "She made tea and toast"? This is just one example - there are too many to quote

The narrative hops back and forth between Julia's childhood (told from her perspective) to her adult life, told in the third person, but occasionally I found this a little confusing at times, not knowing whether the Julia I was reading about was the child, the teenager, or the adult until I'd read a couple of sentences.

Julia enjoys inflicting cruelty and meanness on other people, but there is no explanation as to why she behaves this way, which I found unsatisfactory. There are times when a malevolent character can be edgy and enjoyable in a book, but not this time as, eventually, Julia just became so boring, I was hoping something horrible would happen to her.

I was tempted, about two thirds of the way in, to just give up, but kept going in the hope that the old Forster style would surface; sadly it didn't. Having read most of this author's previous novels, I had to say that this, for me, is so disappointing - had it been the first one I had ever read I wouldn't want to read any of her others, so I would suggest that readers new to Margaret Forster read some of her earlier work - they're so much better than this.
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