Take A Girl Like You has aged alarmingly well. Narratively it has a standard and unremarkable plot, but Kingsley Amis’ character portraits and set pieces are often on par with his fantastic debut, Lucky Jim. And then there is the complex and often troubling (intentionally so) way the novel explores sex and consent.
Published today, the way in which Patrick Standish takes Jenny Bunn’s virginity would be perceived as a form of sexual assault by readers and subject to Brock Turner comparisons. Not that this would be wrong or that Amis disguises Patrick taking advantage of intoxicated Jenny as anything less than extremely morally dubious. But it is the subtle way that Amis writes the scene from Jenny’s perspective and portrays the way, in the moment, she rationalizes and accepts what happens to her that would possibly be missed by readers today who have two-a-day sex scandal news stories constantly on their mind. Of course she is drunk and incoherent and unable to truly consent, however, Amis doesn’t use the scene as a means to shallowly shock us with reprehensible behavior that Patrick has shown signs of from the start.
By going deep into the depths of Jenny’s clouded-by-alcohol mindset, we get a deeply conflicting and human portrayal of the way love can warp and manipulate desire. The scene finds deeper relevance today in the midst of the #MeToo movement when our understanding of consent and the innumerable ways it can become twisted and violated has shaken up the way we view sexual relationships.
Amis is known for writing cruel and morally corrupt characters, and while many of Patrick’s actions fit this mold, the bittersweet (much emphasis on BITTER) “happy ending” he gives Patrick and Jenny has hints of optimism within its inherent cynicism. Patrick is a manipulative, entitled bastard, but the desperation in which he clings to being with Jenny and the comfort and security she provides, and the visceral agony he feels in response to his many discreet and indiscreet betrayals of her hint at a deep-rooted shifting of the nature of men like him. Unfortunately, the psychological shifts occurring within Patrick, and voiced by Amis who was admittedly a Patrick-type scoundrel with the women in his life, did not progress beyond a tendency for self-loathing in future intellectual bachelors.
Reading Amis’ novel today likely leaves you with a bitter taste on a larger scale than it did in 1960. You want to be hopeful that the better instincts of Patrick and the type of sophisticated man he represents will prevail, but the countless stories of abuse flooding the news reveal little has changed. Everywhere we turn men like Patrick are still deceiving and abusing, discreetly and indiscreetly, women like Jenny.