Several of my students recommend Wendy Holden’s books with affection, so when I spotted this offering on the shelves I scooped it up. Would I also enjoy the humour?
Wild & Free is the festival du jour. Everyone piles through its gates – and Cupid lies in wait to sprinkle a little midsummer madness on them all. Teacher Ginnie is desperate to forget her crush on headmaster Mark, and hopes glamping might do the trick. But Mark is also heading for Wild & Free to re-form his college band – desperate not to be seen by anyone he knows.
That is as much of the rather chatty blurb I’m prepared to divulge, but you get the idea. What you may not appreciate from the blurb is the large cast of characters Holden throws into this giddy mix of confusion and general mayhem. Ginnie and Mark are clearly the main love-crossed couple and the ones I cared most about, although there are four other romantic encounters charted in the book. The festival also attracts a man experiencing a mid-life crisis; youngsters trying to establish a business; youngsters wanting to get smashed off their faces; a band of thieves; a wannabe author desperate to get her book idea recognised; an author desperate to get wider recognition for his book… and no, I still haven’t come to the end of the plot strands weaving through this busy book.
So does Holden pull off this attempt to depict the festival experience? Anyone who has ever attended any sort of festival will recognise the sheer disorientating blast of sensory overload described so vividly in Wild and Free. Her cast of characters are generally overwhelmed by the sheer sprawling enormity of the event – a reaction I certainly recognised from my own limited experience. This aspect of the book was the most successful – the festival was a bit like the enchanted wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream where everyone who plunged in was confounded, confused and changed by the experience.
Holden’s writing style is punchy, slick and pacey. She manages to pack a lot into a book running out at just over 450 pages. Whether she effectively brings all the storylines she is juggling to an entirely satisfactory conclusion is more debatable. This is a feel-good comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is absolutely fine by me. It’s not a genre I read extensively, but I enjoyed most of the sub-plots running through the story – and the main romantic story was written with conviction and skill. I really cared for both Mark and Ginnie and wanted them to get together.
Inevitably with such a large cast of characters, some worked better than others. The teenager, Guy, didn’t convince me, and neither did Jude, the thief. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, though. There were so many others to entertain, these failures didn’t jar as much as they might have. What grated more, was Holden’s irritating trick of suddenly planing the edges off some of her spikier characters in the interests of an upbeat ending. There were two gloriously chippy females I was thoroughly enjoying as they stomped through the book, creating mayhem around them. And I was disappointed to see both of them suddenly turned into a shadow of their former stroppy selves in the interests of a tidy ending. I would have far preferred to have them march off into the sunset, still driving everyone around them into an imminent nervous breakdown.
Overall though, Holden mostly pulls this off. Free and Wild is a madcap farce that whisked me into the weird world of festival-going, while putting a smile on my face. I now know why my students are so fond of Holden’s work and if you feel the need for a bit of light relief, go and track this down. It’s fun.