David Nicholls recently admitted on the podcast âHow to Fail with Elizabeth Dayâ that his most successful novel, One Day, was born from a failure, that being his second book, The Understudy. He claimed that it âdidnât really workâ¦I wanted to get a book out of the experience Iâd had as an actorâ¦but it didnât really fly, it didnât really sell many copiesâ.
Itâs true that the sales figures of The Understudy, when it was first published in 2005, didnât come close to any of Nichollsâ other works. One Day sold over two million copies and in 2011 became a film starring Anne Hathaway. His most recent novel Us was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Starter for Ten was also made into a film after a generally positive reception of the book. By comparison, reviews of The Understudy were decidedly lukewarm, either branding it a disappointment in comparison to Nichollsâ other novels, or a light funny holiday read.
I should preface this by saying that I am a die-hard David Nicholls fan, my attempts to convince people to read him often bordering on the aggressive. I'm more excited for the release of his new novel, Sweet Sorrow, in July than I am for my summer holiday. In the same podcast he spoke about the books he draws inspiration from, which he will read a couple of pages of when experiencing a writerâs block and think âthatâs what you have to aspire toâ. For me, such books are David Nichollsâ, the language of which never fails to move and encourage me. Us, in particular, left me in awe of his writing, with its understated depiction of heartbreak and loss in its many forms. He is a master of quietly observed detail, of flawed, sympathetic and utterly believable characters, of witty and natural dialogue. And The Understudy is no exception.
The Understudyâs protagonist is Stephen C. McQueen, a divorced father living in London, attempting to pursue his life-long dream of being an actor. He is working as the understudy to 12thSexiest Man in the World, Josh Harper, in a West End play about Lord Byron. When Josh befriends Stephen and offers him the chance to take the leading role for a few shows in exchange for keeping a secret, it looks like Stephenâs luck might be about to change. But thereâs one problem: Stephen is held over heels for Joshâs wife Nora.
Thereâs no doubt that this is a light, funny read, but to skim through The Understudy would be to miss the heart of what is a very sad, very beautifully written story. Woven into the predictable, pacey plot of the love triangle between Stephen, Josh and Nora and the trouble that ensues, are a collection of delicately crafted perceptions of celebrity, loneliness, parenthood and the reality of pursuing a dream that may never come true.
There are moments filled with humour, so vivid and toe-curling that you can imagine the scene being played out before you, but they are also astutely, tenderly observed, and reveal, bit by bit, the character of Stephen. He turns up at Joshâs party believing himself to be a guest, only to find out that he has been inadvertently hired as a waiter. He takes his daughter Sophie out for lunch, and grapples desperately with the awkward silences. He wakes up, hungover, to find that he has drunkenly stolen Joshâs BAFTA.
Stephen is not a cartoon or a âhapless romanticâ, but a man gradually approaching a crisis of self, stuck in his dismal flat in the suburbs of London. Nicholls has created the ultimate anti-hero; Stephen is a hopeful dreamer, lost in an industry that doesnât welcome him, forced to confront the hardships of adulthood that no one can prepare for.
The Understudy is full of unexpected gems, and should be savoured, more than once, in order to fully appreciate David Nichollsâ stunning writing.