“In all the most intense and intimate experiences of his life, he couldn’t help comparing them with how actors had simulated similar moments: his ecstasy at the birth of his daughter, say, or his grief at the news of the premature death of a schoolfriend, yelping for joy when Alison agreed to marry him, or the smile he’d worn on his wedding day. That’s not to say any of his responses were any less sincere. It was just that, consciously or otherwise, he was always comparing his behaviour with how he had seen actors respond, hoping that it might somehow match up. Life seemed to be at its best, its truest and most intense when it resembled life as simulated on screen: full of jump cuts and slow motion, snappy exit lines and gentle fades to black”
The Understudy is the second novel by British author, screen writer and actor, David Nicholls. Stephen C. McQueen is an actor. Not a famous one, unless you count his performance as Sammy the Squirrel. Stephen has two CVs: the one he shows people; and the one in his head, set in that parallel universe where he gets his big break and everything works out. When he’s trying to impress his ex-wife and his daughter Sophie, he’s inclined to bend the truth a bit…..
At the moment, he’s the understudy for Josh Harper, playing Lord Byron in Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. Josh, the 12th sexiest Man in the World, has a stellar career and a beautiful wife, Nora, although he blames his bad behaviour on insecurity, addiction to sex and low self-esteem. Stephen’s only chance for a Big Break is if something happens to Josh.
When Stephen meets Nora Harper, something clicks. They get on, and she makes him “feel smarter and funnier, more complicated, less shabby and mundane than he suspected he really was. She made him feel well cast, and in a central role too, rather than the understudy of some phantom other self”. Yep, he’s fallen in love.
Nicholls gives readers a wholly believable plot that will have them laughing out loud, wincing and shaking their heads at the antics of his protagonist. His characters are very humanly flawed and the behaviour of many is less than admirable. As Stephen wavers between the chance of his Big Break and the chance of love, he will strike the reader as staggeringly naïve, disappointingly selfish, heartbreakingly earnest and unbelievably stupid. And yet, we want him to succeed.
This one is a slow burn: Nicholls takes his time setting his scene and fleshing out his characters, and patience is rewarded with some beautiful descriptive prose, some excellent sitcom and a heartwarming ending. Recommended.