Friday, April 15, 2011
Rich and Mad by William Nicholson
Cath nodded to show she was listening, but did not look up from her magazine.
"I'm seriously serious. I'm too young to get married but I'm too old to be single. I need love."
"And sex," said Cath.
"Well, yes. But I'm not talking about a quick grope at a party. I'm talking about can't-eat can't-sleep crazy in love."
"Any idea who?" said Cath.
"Not a single clue."
It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of reading such a convincing and absorbing chronicle of that adolescent rite of passage, first love. Nicholson's Rich and Mad is warm and thoughtful and optimistic, just like its protagonists. It's an easy book to fall into and get lost in. Nicholson is an established and respected fantasy writer who had a particular agenda with his first work of realistic fiction. I think the end result is complex yet beautifully balanced.
Rich and Mad is the story of Maddy Fisher and Rich Ross, British teens who are both rather quiet and, frankly, a bit nerdy. They're inexperienced in the field of romance and Rich, in particular, feels like a misfit. They long for love, without really knowing anyone of the opposite sex. Each of them, rather naively, becomes infatuated with someone they barely know: Rich with beautiful Grace, and Maddy with the charming and popular Joe Finnegan. Rich and Maddy become friends in the process of trying to woo their respective crushes, and when things with Grace and Joe fall apart, they support each other and gradually deeper feelings develop between them. They are kind to each other, and it is this kindness that engenders love. It's innocent and sweet, but Nicholson makes it seem natural and not sentimental.
Part of what gives Rich and Mad its depth, I think, is the way that Nicholson has contextualized this relationship. Rich and Maddy don't just experience love emotionally, they also give it a lot of thought. As Rich's feelings for Maddy are blossoming, his beloved grandmother is dying of a stroke. Maddy's antique dealer father has fallen in love with a woman far away in China and has come home to say goodbye to his wife and children in order to commit to this new relationship. Maddy's older sister and her friend Grace are struggling with abusive relationships. Rich is reading The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and considering what it has to say. A lot of different voices are heard and a lot of different experiences are laid out here, some of them more somber than the one Nicholson is primarily developing, and each one feels quite individual.
In the final chapter, Rich and Maddy make love. Nicholson is quite descriptive here and the book jacket carries the warning "explicit content", I think mainly referring to this scene. I felt almost embarrassed reading it; I felt like I was intruding on the privacy of real people, which is not something I often feel when reading fictional accounts of sex. Nicholson captures a mood of tenderness and intimacy, and the encounter seems right and good in the context of the relationship. Rich and Maddy may not stay together forever, but what they have now is the real thing.