It seems to me that Emma’s journey of self-discovery is fraught with anxiety about being a woman. On one hand, I understand it completely. We live in a society that shoots so many images of perfection at us it is a wonder every woman is not a walking basket of nerves. It seems as though Emma has yet to learn that it’s alright to be a woman. Feeling vulnerable, beautiful, nurturing and sexy is just as valuable to a woman as feeling strong, capable and intelligent. We want to be respected and desired. It is in finding this happy balance that we can truly embrace our womanhood. The sooner we learn that both parts are equally necessary to our emotional survival the better off we will be. I believe this is Emma’s main conflict; it will not be resolved, nor will she find true love until she loves herself completely, even the parts that make her vulnerable, the parts that make her a woman.
Emma’s internal conflict becomes most obvious in the delightful chapter “Rules of Engagement” when she holidays with Dexter in Greece. I was surprised to see Emma fly off to the Greek Islands with Dexter for a platonic vacation when the previous chapter ends with Emma’s committment to change her ways with Dexter. She just can’t stay away. The chapter has a quality of anticipation and excitement throughout because we expect the rules to be broken. Who will succumb first? We assume that it is Emma when she cannot tear her eyes away from Dexter’s naked body as he showers, but we later learn that he purposely leaves the door open. Naughty, fun, devilish Dexter tempts Emma and she falls prey to his game. She tries to flirt by initiating a drunken game of secret revelation only to be left deflated when Dexter derails her secret by claiming he’s always known about the crush she had on him when they first met. Emma’s anguish is felt deeply as she chastises herself for even faintly believing that she can seduce Dexter and romance him into falling for her. Every woman, unless supremely confident, has been there: “…stupid, stupid woman, stupid for caring, stupid for thinking that he cared- “ (99). The “rules of engagement” serve one purpose, to keep Emma safe from falling for Dexter; and, they fail because his allure in the hot Grecian sun only increases.
Fortunately for Emma, Dexter’s allure is brought to a screeching halt by Dexter himself. The proposition he makes to Emma who is “…precious, his best friend…” (97) is positively insulting and angering to the nth degree. Nicholls once again plays with the reader’s anticipation or Dexter’s big proposition, since Dexter decides to try honesty to see “…where that [gets] him…” (97). It is almost naturally assumed that Dexter will continue his declaration of attraction for Emma after he says “I mean I fancy you,”(98). Instead, Dexter is Dexter and offers sex, only on the island and only for the two of them to ever know about it. That just about kills Emma’s mood for fun and the reader’s mood for a possible Grecian romance for these two.
The perfect fit of Emma and Dexter, however, remains in their witty banter: she suggests The Very Hungry Caterpillar for Dexter’s reading, the continued comments about playing scrabble and Emma’s bursting laughter when Dexter’s clothes are stolen as they skinny dip. These were all laugh-out-loud moments for me. Regardless of each character’s insecurity or arrogance, I love their dialogue.
This is why seeing Dexter fall to such darkness in chapter 6 is rather difficult. I find it difficult to believe that his life changes so dramatically in the span of a year. A year does not seem all that long for someone to be completely addicted to drugs and alcohol and the fast life. The only way I can somehow understand it is because of Dexter’s mother’s illness. She is dying, and she is taking a part of Dexter with her. Dexter does not know how to cope with ugliness, with death, with sadness since his original goal was to live life as pleasantly as possible. Here he is having to face the ugliest, darkest moment a person can live, without the one person who can guide him through it because it is her death he is experiencing. Dexter acts like a boy throughout this novel, and it is especially noted here. It is difficult to judge him or criticize him – everyone grieves differently; especially when one has never been exposed to such grief or loss. Dexter is after all the golden boy that receives everything he wants, has fun and a laugh all the time. His spiralling is almost forgivable in light of the loss of his mother, his champion…almost.
Once again, Nicholls alternates between Emma and Dexter. She is on a date with Ian Whitehead (of all people) and he is desperate for human connection. Emma and Dexter’s disconnect is also difficult to understand since we leave them sharing a bed in Greece in chapter 5. However, we find Emma seriously contemplating a relationship with Ian (the comedian that isn’t funny)! This is what struck me the most about her date: she cannot laugh with Ian as she can with Dexter. Yet, she tries to make him fit. Why? Why do any of us date the man that we know isn’t for us, but we are too afraid to let him go? Emma may not wish to be alone, she may believe that a man as far away from Dexter as possible is what she needs…who knows why Nicholls makes this plot choice. I hate it. Ian is annoying and Emma is far too intelligent to be with a man like him. The only word I can find to describe Ian Whitehead is repulsive.
Throughout the date, we hear Dexter trying to reach out to Emma, he is desolate and in despair and that is what produces such sadness for him. There is no one else in Dexter’s life but Emma, and if she is not there, he is lost. He finally reaches out to Naomi because a sexual connection is better than no connection at all. This moment, where he admits that Naomi has saved his life that night, is full of pity for Dexter. I am left wondering how he will overcome such darkness and will he ever be able to connect with Emma from such a place? And, is Emma the same person he went to Greece with? They do not interact in this chapter and that only adds to the solitude each one feels as they try desperately to connect to others because they cannot connect to each other.
What were your thoughts on Dexter’s out-of-control drug and alcohol use? How about his nerve to show up at his parent’s house completely inebriated? Your opinions of Ian? Looking forward to reading your responses!