20 April 2010

Book of the Week (57): "Rich and Mad" by William Nicholson

I was quite surprised when I received the review copy of Nicholson’s latest novel for teenagers. I was familiar with his fantasy writing, as well as his screenplays for blockbusters such as Gladiator and First Knight, so a realistic, tender novel about first love and sex was the last thing I expected. Well, some people are just multi-talented – Nicholson is a good writer even when he steps away from the big canvases of alternative worlds or historical epics to focus on the life of two, quite ordinary, teenagers. The novel shifts between the stories (and points of view) of Rich Ross and Maddy Fisher who go to the same school but have very little to do with each other until they find that they have something in common – they are both victims of unrequited love. Maddy is sure that she is having a secret love affair with the gorgeous, but still-to-dump-his-current-girlfriend, Joe Finnigan, while Rich is busy making a fool of himself to get the attention of the I-couldn’t-care-less-whether-you-live-or-die ice queen, Grace. When reality finally kicks in, Rich and Maddy find that they understand each other, have shared interests, and, actually, feel quite comfortable together.

The budding relationship between Rich and Mad is written convincingly and realistically, but the book mostly impressed me with its honesty about sex. From describing sexual feelings to pornography and finally ‘doing it’ – Nicholson is direct, doesn’t recoil from naming body parts, and more importantly, stays away from the ‘double standards’ which annoyingly persist in so many teen novels by showing us a girl who is interested in sex, enjoys and initiates it, as much, if not more than her male partner. Rich and Mad does not feel like sensational reading material as some aspects of Burgess’s ground-breaking Doing It did, and it is all the better for it. My only issue with it is that it still operates within the conservative / educational frame by promoting sex within a ‘proper’ relationship. (For this reason I still prefer Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime and the more recent Good Girls by Laura Ruby.)

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

  • Well, obviously I highly recommend all three novels mentioned in this review. Melvin Burgess’s Doing It is still an important novel about sex for teenagers, even if it is far from perfect, Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime was published in 1978 and is still fresh, exciting and ground-breaking, and Laura Ruby’s Good Girls explores society’s double standards about the sex life of girls and boys.
  • I’d just like to throw in a trailer – Andersen Press are about to publish (July) a short story collection edited by Keith Gray and entitled Losing It, in which an impressive cast of current YA writers give their version of ‘the first time’. Should be interesting.

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