British author Anna Maxted’s stories are an intriguing blend of Chick Lit and Women’s Fiction. Her heroines are young and trendy, but they face crises that are more serious than losing weight or finding Mr. Right. Her third novel, Behaving Like Adults, tackles a disturbing issue with insight and wry humor.
Holly Appleton is a closet romantic whose sunny outlook on life is at odds with her peers’ cynicism. Although she knows that “modern women don’t believe in love - it carries roughly the same stigma as halitosis,” she runs a successful dating service, Girl Meets Boy. However, her own love life could use some assistance. She recently broke up with her fiancé Nick, a charming but totally unambitious fellow whose sole means of support is dressing up as Mr. Elephant for children’s birthday parties. Nick has yet to move out of their house, and Holly thinks he’s hoping for a reconciliation. Her sister Claudia, also employed by Girl Meets Boy, suggests that Holly go out with Stuart, one of the agency’s candidates, to prove to Nick that their relationship is well and truly finished. Holly reluctantly agrees.
But on their second date, Stuart rapes her.
Well, maybe it wasn’t really rape, Holly muses as she tries to convince herself it was no big deal. After all, Stuart was rough and inconsiderate, but it wasn’t like he was a stranger grabbing her at knifepoint in an alleyway. And he didn’t stop after Holly said no, but “if a woman is being, you know, she wouldn’t hold in her stomach, would she?” She’s more embarrassed than angry; she just wants to forget about the whole thing and move on.
Although Holly tries to pretend that she hasn’t experienced a trauma, she has to admit eventually that she has changed. She has lost her innate optimism and trust in other people, which is not a good attitude for a woman who runs a dating service. When she’s not making excuses for Stuart’s behavior, she’s blaming herself. She becomes more and more reclusive until Claudia and best friends Nige and Rachel finally confront her. Holly decides to take action with unexpected, at times horrifying, but ultimately gratifying results. Meanwhile, Nick undergoes personal upheavals of his own and emerges a changed man. Can he and Holly finally be happy together, or are they clinging together out of fear and need?
Despite the subject matter, Behaving Like Adults is definitely not a downer. Maxted maintains a tone of dry humor throughout the novel, so that even when Holly is at her lowest point, the story doesn’t lapse into melodrama. Instead, Maxted shows how Holly reclaims her life little by little and eventually becomes a stronger person. By creating a vibrant set of secondary characters, Maxted also illustrates how the rape affects Holly’s family and friends.
The novel is also enlivened by the second-chance-at-love story between Holly and Nick. Nick has great potential; Holly recalls that the first time they met, he was rescuing a duck from a crowded London street. He may be immature, but he is funny, kind and sweet. Dealing with Holly’s crisis as well as his own problems forces Nick to mature a bit, but Holly also realizes that “adult behavior” comes in a variety of forms, some of which may even include dressing up in an elephant costume.
At almost 400 pages, the novel occasionally drags, but the book’s length gives the reader plenty of opportunity to become fully involved with Holly, her friends and her relatives, many of whom are engaged in their own struggles to define what it means to finally “grow up.” I came away feeling like I had read a very adult novel, but one that entertained as much as it elucidated.
Note: Maxted’s debut novel, Getting Over It, is also highly recommended. It’s another interesting mix of humor, romance and drama as a young woman comes to terms with her father’s sudden death.