An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

An Awfully Big Adventure is one of Bainbridge’s best-known novels. A film adaptation of the book, directed by Mike Newell and starring Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, and Georgina Cates, was released in 1995. Bainbridge used her own experiences as a young assistant stage manager in a local Liverpool repertory theater as the backdrop for the story of Stella, a troubled teenager who affects each of the other members of the troupe without realizing it.

The setting of the novel is grim; lower-class life in Liverpool after World War II is depicted as gritty and hard. Stella lives with her uncle and her uncle’s girlfriend, who do their best to care for the young woman who was abandoned by her wild mother some sixteen years earlier. Uncle Vernon wants to save Stella from the fate of so many young women who find themselves working in factories or restaurants when they leave school, and he calls in many favors to secure her a spot at a repertory theater.

The book opens by dropping readers into a scene that they will not understand until much later in the book. Clearly, something is very wrong; Meredith Potter, the troupe director, finds a girl in the props room, a girl who turns out to be the story’s protagonist, Stella. After a brief but angry encounter, Stella runs from the theater, taking refuge in a phone booth outside.

The novel then flashes back to the story of Stella’s first day at the theater and follows through chronologically until it returns to the opening scene. Because the reader knows from the opening pages that something dreadful will happen before the book ends, the entire story is told under a pall.

Each member of the company has his or her own secrets. Stella, who is by all accounts an odd young woman, has a knack for delivering knockout blows without even being aware of it through casual remarks or thoughtless actions. Moreover, each of the characters is in love with the wrong person. Stella, for example, has a crush on Meredith. Although the rest of company knows that he is a homosexual, Stella does not. When Meredith does not return her advances, she has an affair with O’Hara, an older, legendary actor. The affair is meaningless to her, but it has dire consequences for O’Hara, who recognizes in Stella, too late, a woman he loved some sixteen years earlier.

Indeed, the consequences of earlier choices flood the end of the novel. Not one of the characters...

(The entire section is 593 words.)