Sometimes novels don’t quite work. They really ought to, but at the end you are left with a vague feeling that the author missed an opportunity to write an entertaining, satisfying relationship novel, and instead wrote three quarters of one. This was Nicholls’ second book after ‘Starter for Ten’, which has a single white young man as its central character, through whom we see the events of the novel, as does ‘The Understudy’. While the protagonist in ‘Starter for Ten’ is relatively easy to identify with – he is fallible, but charming (although I am not sure female readers would agree) – the central character in ‘The Understudy’ is far less engaging. For a start Nicholls has given him a silly name – Stephen McQueen – and the joke “Stephen with a ph” wears thin pretty early on. Each time it was repeating I was reminded of the fact that as an aspiring actor he would have adopted a different professional name after about 30 seconds. He is dishonest, unsuccessful, profoundly so, divorced, and quite bitter about his lack of success.
I am not sure if we were supposed to identify with McQueen, or find him in any way endearing, but I didn’t. He is manipulated and walked all over by Josh, the obnoxious character he understudies (if Josh is a portrait of anyone Nicholls knew in real life, they should sue!). Nobody really likes him, his life is a complete mess, his pursuit of acting success at the cost of his marriage is quite clearly pointless, rather than noble, and while the novel ends with him recognising that, failure isn’t entertaining or funny. He does – kind of – get the girl – but the attraction is really hard to understand or believe, and only the abrupt ending prevents us from seeing the inevitable rejection. I suspect Nicholls’ made Stephen so unlikeable in an attempt to avoid the standard rom-com clichés, but he didn’t follow this through – the character may be creepy and unloveable, but the situations he finds himself in are predictable and lame, all informed by a self-consciousness and determination to demonstrate that this isn’t ‘Love Actually’, actually.
The plot revolves around McQueen’s part as an understudy in a successful stage play about Lord Bryon, in which Josh has the lead. Each night McQueen has little to do except hope Josh is ill or has an accident, which he never does. Josh invites him to a party – and the comedy set up here is that Josh is actually asking him to help out as a waiter, while Stephen thinks it is an actual invitation. I saw that coming a mile off, but it doesn’t make sense – if you are having a party professionally catered, you don’t supplement the staff with vaguely worded invitations to casual acquaintances. That gives you a good flavour of the comedy incidents that are scattered through the novel, and which aren’t really that funny. Nicholls does his best, and there are plenty of drinking to excess, unsexy sex scenes, and theatrical failures – but its all a bit laboured and predictable. As an example, Stephen accidentally steals (whilst drunk) a BAFTA trophy from Josh’s flat. You know that the chances of him returning it with an apology, anonymously if necessary, are nil, this being a relationship comedy. So it’s just a question of when, not if, this theft is discovered, and sure enough, the award is found at the back of a wardrobe just in time for it to be used as an impromptu weapon.
‘One Day’ and ‘Starter for Ten’ have both been made into reasonably successful films, and my suspicion is that ‘The Understudy’ would actually make a better film than a novel. Some of the physical comedy would work better – for example the scene with Stephen dressed up as a squirrel for a children’s ‘How to count’ film, which he has lied about to his family, describing it as a crime drama – and some of the dead wood could be pruned. But if you are looking for a follow-up for ‘One Day’, ‘Starter for Ten’ would be a much better (forgive me) starter for ten.