The following blog entry was written by that most elusive of creatures, mege1, whom you may remember from blog entries such as this one. Unfortunately, tech gremlins prevented him from posting the entry himself, so I’m doing it for him, in between holidays. I’ll be back for good in a little over a week, at which point I’m hoping to post something witty, insightful and not at all redundant about Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. The Goofy Beast – Always Ahead Of The Curve When It Comes To Being Behind.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Yes, David Nicholls’ books all have the same basic plot: Boy and girl seem to meet and to start liking each other, but there are obstacles and pitfalls. Hackneyed, you say? So what? You see, there’s that book about a mad captain who goes after a white whale. Oh, and another one tells us about a guy on who is stranded on an island. Boring, isn’t it? On the other hand, do you really read books for their plot? If you dismiss each and every book on the grounds of it being another love story, then an angry mob consisting of irate live readers, dead writers and led by Will Shakespeare and Jane Austen wants to seriously haunt you.
It is also blindingly obvious that David Nicholls and Nick Hornby are perfectly comparable: Both borrow heavily from contemporary music, film, and pop culture trivia; both know how to bring in a joke whenever they feel like it. Both are not likely to end up on any serious reading list, but what of that? They don’t aspire to be, I imagine.
Nicholls’ debut, Starter for Ten, is about a teenager leaving home and going to University and falling for a rather posh and glib beauty. They both end up on the hopeless team for that game show, University Challenge, and it’s clear from early on that his clumsy courtship will go unanswered. But man, can Nicholls tell you a story. The whole book is full of comedy, but at the same time, all the characters are believable and right there on the page. My main delight is the scene during that night when the teenage lover-boy is invited to the girl’s parents’ holiday cottage, gets stoned and goes for a glass of milk in the middle of the night. For reasons better left explained by the novel itself, mum and dad turn up naked in the kitchen. It could have been raucous, it could have been clumsy and slapstick-y and awkward, but Nicholls handles that moment with wit and grace – as much as there can possibly be, anyway.
The Understudy uses a lot of Nicholls’ first-hand experience as an actor. (Nicholls has pretty much given up on acting and has switched to writing screenplays – and novels, obviously). The man from the title plays extras like corpses and bystanders and is also the understudy of a conceited movie superstar who plays Lord Byron in a London stage play. The understudy falls in love with the star’s wife while keeping quiet about the star’s flings. Again, the plot may not prompt you to pick up that book; it’s in the telling. Nicholls gets a lot of the backstage atmosphere of a theatre right, at least as far as I can tell. He is not afraid to show wayward or obnoxious traits of a protagonist you are supposed to like for most of the time. The understudy starts lying, not because he’s selfish, but he wants to protect someone else and so digs himself deeper into the Pit of Failed Actors. And that, as we all know, is a deep pit indeed.
Nicholls’ latest novel, One Day, seems to be all the rage. Nicholls himself has taken on the noble task to turn it into a Hollywood screenplay, a situation he has rendered with all the acerbic wit necessary in his previous novel. One Day, again, is about a girl and a boy who almost sleep together on the night after their graduation; the novel goes on to tell us about what happens every 15th of July for twenty years. That’s quite a good concept to avoid lengthy bits, and it also allows the author to bring in all kinds of pop trivia. This novel here is more serious in tone, although there are enough comic elements left. While the first two novels can be read during a longish train ride, One Day has the good instinct to delve into the two protagonists’ psyches. All three novels are great reads, by themselves, but also if you’ve come out of some serious reading of Literature with a capital L, like I have. Go on now, have some fun. Any day now, David Nicholls’ novels will be part of pop culture. You’ll know when his name or the name of one of his novels are the answer to some question on some televised game show.