Book Review: ‘The Understudy’ by David Nicholls

The Understudy is the story of down-on-his-luck actor Stephen McQueen (not that one) as he struggles to find that big break that will catapult him into stardom, just like heart throb Josh Harper who Stephen is the understudy for in theatre production Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.

With an acting career that has so far involved playing a dead guy and a singing squirrel, Stephen knows that this play could be his chance to shine, not only for himself, but to impress daughter Sophie who he is trying to build a relationship with after his divorce.

WIN_20150815_105314Things start to look up when Josh invites Stephen to his celebrity filled birthday bash, but when it turns out that he’s only there to serve drinks, Stephen inadvertently gets drunk on a cocktail of left-over drinks and antibiotics, accidentally steals a best actor award, oh, and falls in love with Josh’s wife.

In amongst his quest for fame, Stephen is still coming to terms with his ex-wife Alison re-marrying a man who constantly keeps the collars of his shirts turned up, something which Stephen just can’t understand, as he asks Alison, “Isn’t that difficult for you? Don’t you want to reach over and just turn them down?” Just one of the many laugh-out-loud moments from the book.

With the absence of being ‘heavily pencilled’ for anything other than a sequel to the singing squirrel part, things take an interesting turn when Stephen walks in on Josh with another woman, and now, being close friends with Josh’s wife, succumbs to Josh’s ‘deal’ of  a big break in return for his silence.

For movie obsessed Stephen who lives his life based on moments and reactions learnt through film, it’s almost as though he doesn’t have an identity of his own, only a version of himself as would be portrayed on the big screen.

In all the most intense and intimate experiences of his life, he couldn’t help comparing them with how actors had simulated similar moments.

Yet, in The Understudy we really go through the emotions with the lead character: the longing for something you’ve worked towards your whole life; the heartache of seeing the woman you love re-marry, and your daughter ask to be taken home mid-way through a day together; the conflict of whether or not to reveal a friend’s secret, hurting a woman you care for and jeopardising your own career.

From the author that brought us Starter for Ten, and One Day, this is another charming, funny, and intelligent read; a romantic comedy, but one with substance.

Ultimately, this book teaches us that sometimes, to be truly happy, you just have to let go of that dream, because in actual fact, it might be holding you back. And anyway, when you do get that moment you’ve dreamed of, it will never be as good as you imagined, and lets face it, sometimes other things are just more important.


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