Crikey, not another frog

ZOE TROPE by Amanda Prantera Bloomsbury pounds 14.99

THIS IS a novel which appears artless in its cunning imitation of girl-talk: intimate, gossipy, confessional, the chattiness leavened with self-deprecating humour. It reads like a personal memoir, an autobiography, but one crafted by a wily storyteller.

The eponymous heroine, Zoe, who made her first appearance in Amanda Prantera's earlier novel Proto Zoe, recounts her amorous adventures as she leaves England and fetches up in Italy. Her charming rake's progress is originally arranged as a sequence of chapters each dealing with a particular love object. The introduction displays the lunch-table histrionics and tantrums of Zoe's father and grandmother, and the girl's dawning awareness that "love" can include nagging and blackmail. Thus armed, Zoe proceeds on a series of misadventures, each one more or less comic and chastening, as she attempts to kiss frog after frog into princehood. We meet, in succession, Jeremy, Adrian, Aymar, Harry, and so on. Later episodes detail Zoe's deep affection for her friend Eliza, her passion for Rome, where she ends up living, and her recognition, right at the finale, of an intriguing stranger who indicates the possibility of a happy ending.

Zoe's encounters provide cameos of more or less inept and hopeless - and occasionally dire - young men, but mainly function as the portrait of Zoe herself, ducking and diving amongst the more bohemian tribes of the jeunesse doree, practising to become a femme fatale while doing the season, learning how to drink too much and throw up, wryly recognising her own snobbery while pretending to be an ugly duckling so that the reader will sympathise. Butlers glide to and fro in the background, debs lark about in country houses, and the whiff of nobs down on their luck is reminiscent of Dodie Smith's compelling teenage classic I Capture the Castle.

For readers who do not come from such a background of cultured classiness, the effect is weird. Do girls like this, with their mixture of naivete and self-confidence, really exist? The novel convinces us they do, exiting from the posh boarding schools throughout the land to charmed and charming existences. Zoe is as nice as they come.

It still feels innovative and refreshing to read about a young woman's amorous quest that is not translated simply into sexual encounters done in fashionably stark language, not reduced only to what two bodies do in bed. It's about what girls think of boys as they close and grapple with them in all sorts of situations. The sex, not graphically described, but rendered affectionately, wittily and truthfully (the orgasms not had, the failed erections) is mixed up, as in life, with encounters in lifts and at parties, forays into shops and restaurants, speeding on motorways, endless lounging about waiting for something to happen. The boredom of late adolescence co-exists with a frantic inner life. Through it all stalks Zoe's father, muttering, jealous, progressively excluded.

All along, it's Eliza, her best friend, whom Zoe most deeply loves. The chapter on this love is beautiful and moving, a series of sketches of moments of deepening closeness, as the two girls meet at language school in Oxford, and spend long, cheerful afternoons lying on Eliza's bed endlessly talking about men and thereby discovering each other. They trust each other, and egg each other on to further adventures. They make a wild and wonderful pair.

Another odd and invigorating chapter is on Rome, the secret lure and life of the city written by an insider who is both complicit and irritated. In the late Sixties, we gather, Rome was the only possible place for girls like these. Let's hope there's a sequel soon.

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