David Nicholls recently admitted on the podcast ‘How to Fail with Elizabeth Day’ that his most successful novel, One Day, was born from a failure, that being his second book, The Understudy. He claimed that it “didn’t really work…I wanted to get a book out of the experience I’d had as an actor…but it didn’t really fly, it didn’t really sell many copies”.
It’s true that the sales figures of The Understudy, when it was first published in 2005, didn’t come close to any of Nicholls’ 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 Nicholls’ 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 writer’s block and think “that’s what you have to aspire to”. For me, such books are David Nicholls’, 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 Understudy’s 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 Stephen’s luck might be about to change. But there’s one problem: Stephen is held over heels for Josh’s wife Nora.
There’s 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 Josh’s 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 Josh’s BAFTA.
Stephen is not a cartoon or a ‘hapless romantic’, 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 doesn’t 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 Nicholls’ stunning writing.