Review: The Understudy, David Nicholls

This is by the same author as One Day – it even has a similarish kind of cover.  This is more or less how I wound up buying it … that and it was marked one third off.  David Nicholls can be a bit of a tricky writer for me because I always seem to end up reading his books at the wrong time.  I read Starter for Ten just when I was starting university and it made me feel really down because the whole experience sounded a bit grim and then I read One Day just as I was graduating and it made me feel really down because life after university sounded even more grim.  Still, I went into The Understudy feeling much less uncertain because after all, I have never tried to make it in show business.  Still, I wouldn’t exactly call this an uplifting read.

Stephen C. McQueen (no relation) is the ultimate failed actor – as was David Nicholls before he took up the authoring.  Indeed, the misery of waiting in the wings in the hope of a serious injury catching the star lead, in this case the wonderfully ghastly Josh Harper, Twelfth Sexiest Man in the World, lead in “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” where Stephen is of course the mere understudy.  Stephen is utterly hopeless, divorced from an indifferent wife and with an almost equally indifferent daughter. He longs for the Big Break in the hope of Proving Them Wrong even while his ex-wife tries vaguely to get him into a Real Job, sadly Stephen’s main role has been getting type-cast as Sammy Squirrel.  


Stephen is not the most likeable of narrators, he lies a lot to those closest to him, but it is generally in the hope of saving face and you do have to have to feel sympathy with him in his pathetic predicament.  I really winced when he thought back to the day of his daughter’s birth when he had considered how important it was that he always be there to take care of his family – the older Stephen sadly realised that they got on lots better without him.  His daughter suffers through Saturdays out while pointedly reading Jacqueline Wilson books and looking as if she can really identify with them.  Yowch.  Similarly to Dexter in One Day, in Stephen, Nicholls has created a sympathetic flawed character.  Still, his life starts to brighten when, after getting invited to Josh Harper’s birthday party – and not in a good way – Stephen there meets and almost immediately falls in love with Josh’s American wife Nora.  

Nora is another interesting character – Stephen is convinced that they have hit it off brilliantly but Nora is not so sure.  Still, as the book goes on, they do get closer, putting Stephen in an awkward position when he discovers that Josh is being unfaithful.  Naturally, chaos ensues.  Ultimately, Stephen does get his Big Break of sorts when Josh gets his teeth knocked out, but even though he finally gets his moment of glory in front of his ex-wife and daughter, his reaction is surprising.  The Understudy turns out to be not so much about Chasing your Dreams as it is about recognising when to Give Up and try something else.  Other writers might have had Stephen finally reaching stardom, but Nicholls gives him instead self-realisation and the opportunity to leave the acting profession with a little bit of dignity.  

Similarly, although Nicholls does allow Nora and Stephen to  reach some kind of understanding, it still reminded me more of the ending of The Graduate – you know, the awkward bit at the other end when they look away from each other.  Sometimes two people run away together and then other times two people are just running away.  Nora’s marriage is over and Stephen’s career is over, they are both at a crossroads but whether their paths are destined to intertwine is not clear.  

So … this book didn’t alter my life perspective or put me down in the dumps etc etc, it was a fun, quick read which I would recommend but compared to One Day, this one is pretty tame.  

three-stars
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The Understudy by David Nicholls
Published by Random House Publishing Group on January 30th 2007
Genres: Fiction, Humorous, Literary, General
Pages: 368
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781588365057


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