Oh, British chick lit, how I love thee. Like candyfloss for my brain, you are. Maxted takes what could be a light, fluffy, and completely mindless story and gives it a heavy, serious layer underneath, and it works beautifully.
Holly Appleton believes in love. Even though she's just split up with her fiance, Nick, a grown man who makes a living by dressing as Mr. Elephant at children's parties and Febrezes his feet when he's too lazy to shower - which is most of the time - she is an eternal optimist and runs a hip little dating firm called Girl Meets Boy in London. In order to help Holly get over Nick (and give Nick some incentive to move out of their house), Holly's coworkers, sister Claudia and actor Nigel, convince her to go on a date with a prospective client. Little does Holly know that opening the door to Stuart Marshall, a successful lawyer with a ridiculous sense of self-worth and entitlement, will be more disastrous than she could have imagined; one night, after seeing Holly home from a party, Stuart rapes her on the kitchen floor. Nick walks in during the middle and promptly moves out. Holly spirals into a dark denial and depression and nearly runs her business and life into the ground while keeping her secret locked away.
Maxted has a gifted touch with the material. All of the characters, save Stuart, are likeable and real. She keeps the devastatingly serious subject of the rape in perspective at all times while letting the story unfold from Holly's perspective. It is never treated lightly, and the steps that Holly must take with the police and finally therapy are described frankly without being heavy-handed. The reader almost gets a sense of being in Holly's skin as she moves through her existence in the weeks and months following "that night," going through the denial, shame, fear, hope, and cautious return of optimism with her. The mood is tense in just the right places, with an unexpected turn for the better here and there as Holly realizes that she is surrounded by love and support.
There are times when she retreats, but she always moves forward again, buoyed by her friends and family. The plot is made more substantial and realistic by the supporting characters and their experiences with life: Nick, who discovers a family secret; Claudia, who is keeping a piece of herself separate; Holly's parents, who turn out to be more than she ever expected; Rachel, Holly's best friend who grew up in a posh English family but is delightfully filthy; and Nigel, who is so theatrical that it's nearly impossible to believe he's straight. The point is, life goes on, and Maxted makes that the central theme of the novel. Even when your world is ripped to shreds and you find yourself in a strange place where up is down and the sky is green, you have to keep going, because that's what life is about. It's about the good and the bad, and keeping each in perspective, and making the most of what you have. It's lovely.