Take A Girl Like You (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 4 Apr 2013
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About the Author
Kingsley Amis's (1922-95) works take a humorous yet highly critical look at British society, especially in the period following the end of World War II. Born in London, Amis explored his disillusionment in novels such as That Uncertain Feeling (1955). His other works include The Green Man (1970), Stanley and the Women (1984), and The Old Devils (1986), which won the Booker Prize. Amis also wrote poetry, criticism, and short stories.
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The main plot is the campaign of lecherous Southerner Patrick Standish to entice into bed his beautiful young Northern girlfriend Jenny Bunn. (This is counterpointed, to his frustration though not to the damage of his ego, by the lack of effort he needs to seduce almost any other woman.) A notable feature is the device by which every chapter is written from the viewpoint of one or other of them. Amis has little difficulty portraying Patrick's mental processes, but shows considerable imagination in imagining how Jenny might see things. He gets Jenny to express how she categorises a man: one criterion is whether or not he is a "stooge" [nowadays we would say tosser, or something less polite); the other is whether, romantically, he is a "dud" or a "smasher". Patrick effectively uses these categories in a pivotal tirade where he explains to Jenny that she will never find her ideal man, because it is impossible to find a smasher with morals.
The novel has as varied and entertaining a gallery of characters as anywhere in Amis: Dick (Jenny's stooge landlord)and his embittered wife Martha, their other lodger (and aspiring bisexual) Anna, Graham (Patrick's likeable but dud flatmate), Sheila (nymphomaniac daughter of Patrick's head teacher) and Julian, a rich roué. With a nice twist Julian, though quite obviously a wolf in wolf's clothing, ends up as displaying rather more sexual morality than Patrick.
Unusually for Amis, there are two occasions where two of the loser characters (Graham and Martha) are given the chance to eloquently vent their disillusionment.
A more typical note is the intellectual snobbery implied by the contrast that Patrick is classics master at a grammar (or perhaps even private) school, whereas Jenny is "only" a primary school teacher fresh from training college (i.e. not university). (Martha is quick to express this.)
Like many of Amis' earlier novels, this doesn't stand the test of time quite as well as some of the later ones, e.g. Ending Up or The Green Man, but it's still a hilarious romp (or should that be non-romp?) through the sexual morality of the late 1950s.
Up till then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Take A Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis's novel of 1960, is set firmly in the pre-sexual period. The set-up is that Jenny Bunn, a beautiful, virginal, twenty-year-old from the North of England is starting a new job as a primary school teacher in the South. Soon she encounters Patrick Standish, a handsome, womanising, thirty-year-old, also a teacher. She does not believe in sex before marriage; he does; and so the bargaining and wrangling begin.
Amis's vision of human sexual conduct is a dispiriting one. Attractive and unattractive people inhabit completely separate worlds, he suggests, and things that would never be tolerated from the unattractive are condoned in the attractive. It is difficult to like Patrick given the method he employs to achieve his goal, and difficult to forgive Jenny for forgiving him.
One reads Amis, of course, in the hope that he will be funny, as he was certainly capable of being (in Lucky Jim, for example). Alas, in Take a Girl Like You, the jokes are about as amusing as gas bills:
'A dose of sherry - it reached about two-thirds of the way up a cut-glass tumbler dating from a year or two after Hastings - was passed to him.'
Or how about this:
'Sheila did not say anything, and kept giving her inquisitive, unbelieving looks out of the corner of her eye, as if Jenny, while staying the same in every other way, had met a famous sex-murderer and got away with it.'
Oh dear. I listened to the audio version of Take a Girl Like You, which was recorded by the actor David Rintoul.
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But it never really came together. I never engaged with either of the main characters, whose perspectives alternate as the story's point of view. And neither, finally, came off as quite believable. Contrast this novel with Amis' lauded debut Lucky Jim, or even it less celebrated followups That Uncertain Feeling and I Like It Here, in which sharp satirical characterizations drive the stories without veering too far into either the serious or the savage. Here, there is just too much cynicism, especially in the ending that I won't give away.
Not that there aren't also some wonderful things in. Two extended speeches, one about how women choose between bad boys and safe but dull boys and the other about the plight of being an unattractive male in the sexual competition for attractive girls, are shapely observed. There is also an entertaining description of a cricket match that reminded me of similar passages in Ian Fleming's Bond books, where he details various card games (and a game of golf in Goldfinger) in such dramatic detail that it doesn't matter whether you are familiar with the rules or not (and, frankly, I know nothing about cricket).
Altogether Take a Girl Like You is a letdown.