Semi-autobiographical, An Awfully Big Adventure is about a young girl trying to make it in the theatre, and falling in love. Stella Bradshaw was raised by her aunt and uncle, two mild-mannered, well-meaning individuals representing a peculiarly English notion of an aspirational lower-middle class family. Stella, however, has inherited her mother’s dramatic tendencies and we later learn that her mother abandoned her to pursue her own dreams of acting in America. When Stella finds herself an acting role in a local theatre putting on Peter Pan (from which the title is taken), she feels able to discover more about herself. She also falls in love with the director, Meredith Potter.
These events mark the sources of conflict in the novel. Stella’s dreams of a relationship with Potter cannot be fulfilled: he’s gay, and Stella is unique in not knowing this. She falls into a relationship with another actor trying to find some sort of avenue for her sexual impulses. She also struggles to develop self-reliance. She is frequently seen to be naïve, and has difficulties expressing her emotions. One of the rare moments in the book where she is able to confide in someone is in a telephone call with her mother: we later discover that her mother provided the voice for the speaking clock, and it is this which Stella rings.
While this novel failed to strike much of a chord with me, I can see it is well-constructed and I felt a degree of sympathy for Stella. Bainbridge captures her youthful naïvity well and I appreciated that she did not slip into the faintly absurd, as she has done in other novels, instead aiming for a more realistic feel. I think this is one of her better works, and deserving of its nomination.