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Marks out of 10 - Sensitive, honest, touching - and explicit

Rich and Mad

William Nicholson

Egmont, #163;6.99

Martin Spice

With its front cover synopsis of "First Love. First sex. And everything in between" and a warning of "some explicit content" on the reverse, nobody could claim that they had not been warned what to expect from Rich and Mad. And with those credentials, no self-respecting teenager would be able to resist picking it up.

William Nicholson has taken on the toughest of assignments in exploring the tortured, confused, painful and occasionally ecstatic world of teenage sexuality and done an excellent job of it. Rich and Mad is not only a page turner, it is a responsible, sensitive and intelligent exploration of adolescent sexuality and angst. And as such it is something of a triumph.

As hero and heroine, Richard and Maddy are appealing and engaging. At the start of the novel they are both busy obsessing over other people. Maddy wants a "can't eat, can't sleep, crazy in love" relationship and Rich can't take his eyes off Grace - so much so that when he sees her he walks into a lamppost and spills his books. Among them is Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving, a talisman text for the thoughtful and sensitive Rich which is assumed to be a sex manual by his schoolmates. Far from it: "Rich was seventeen. He could see no prospect of sexual intercourse in the near future; or even the far future for that matter."

What interests Rich is not technique but Fromm's insights into the psychology of love. As for Maddy, her attention is fixated on Joe Finnigan, but Joe has a long-term girlfriend and, despite what seem to Maddy some encouraging signs, is not about to change allegiances.

So far, so conventional. Two protagonists initially interested in other people end up falling in love. But Rich and Mad is not just a tritely conventional love story. "To love somebody is not just a strong feeling - it is a decision, it is a judgement, it is a promise," quotes Rich, and it forms the basis of their relationship. Through skilful use of dialogue in which they initially console each other's rejection and hurt, Nicholson edges the pair towards a real understanding of each other based on respect and affection. Once that is established, the physical attraction grows until they agree to have planned, responsible sex. If there were a model you would want teenagers to follow, then this is probably it.

One of Rich and Mad's strengths is the number of sub-plots that revolve around and reflect back on the book's main relationship. Love is simply not as straightforward as it seems and Nicholson shows us why. Maddy's parents are on the verge of splitting up largely because her father has no self-esteem. Her friend Grace proves heartless and duplicitous but attracts some sympathy when it becomes known that she is in an abusive and violent relationship with a young man who is two-timing her with Maddy's sister. Rich's gran dies and with her another kind of love. Their English teacher, Mr Pico, is presumed gay and is hounded for it, both by some of the pupils and latterly by his own absurd headteacher.

Love is a multi-faceted thing and takes many forms: each relationship stands or falls on its own terms. That seems a sound enough message.

At a recent reading of the book by the author, the advanced notices stated that under-16s had to be accompanied by adults. And herein lies something of a dilemma. Most under-16s would have been squirming in embarrassment in the company of adults yet would have been entertained, sensitised and educated by a private reading of what the book has to offer. But they need to be able to access it.

The overt and at times explicit sexual content would, for my money at least, rule it out of classroom use. A niche in the school library is probably the best to be hoped for as long as there are not too many members of the parent body who would object to a proliferation of four-letter words and a frank treatment of sexual issues. If there are, expect fireworks.

The world of teenage fiction is saturated with broken relationships, single parents, poor housing, violence and drug use. What a delightful change, then, to discover a book that is warm and positive about love and relationships and rooted in values that increase the chance of them enduring.

Yes, Rich and Mad are middle-class kids and the book will probably be read by teenagers from a similar background - but they too have a need to explore themselves and their perplexing emotional world. This gentle, funny and thought-provoking book can do nothing but help their quest.


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