Lucky Break (2011) by Esther Freud
Lucky Break tells the story of a group of drama students. Starting with their first day at the prestigious Drama Arts college, the book follows the group for a period of 14 years - from 1992 to 2006 - and as it does so the focus narrows to three individuals. Nell, who emerges as the protagonist, is an average-looking, uncertain girl who harbours a burning passion to 'make it' but comes up against seemingly relentless barriers; Dan is a talented and determined actor who finds his career options hampered by the financial and emotional strain of an early marriage and four young children; Charlie is both stunning and gifted, but after some early success she becomes totally obsessed with the idea that she is losing her looks. The chapters alternate between characters - although Nell (who for some reason I couldn't stop picturing as Kate Winslet) receives a little more attention than the others - and move through the years, charting the actors' early struggles, successes, failures, and difficulties in reconciling their 'real' lives with their strange, difficult, and all-consuming profession.
The style is sparse, skipping over years of the characters' lives with only the scantest detail, but I found it oddly addictive. However, the lack of detail was a particular problem at the beginning, when the students of Drama Arts were first being introduced; I found it difficult to keep track of who everyone was and this meant there was little emotional impact when, for instance, Eshkol slashed his wrists, or star pupil Gabriel was spotted working as a waiter - I was too busy trying to remember who these people actually were. Whole relationships happen off the page, and we're given little glimpses of something really significant - the start of an affair (or is it?) - and then the narrative switches back to another character and the thread is lost. I couldn't figure out whether this was a great narrative device (is it better that we get to imagine our own versions of the characters' lives?) or just a frustrating cop-out. David Nicholls' One Day, despite being a more lightweight novel, did this much better, skipping significant periods in the characters' lives while still managing to imbue them with warmth and humanity. In contrast, I always felt like Nell, Dan and Charlie were kept at arm's length from the reader.
I often found myself thinking the description was clumsy, the characterisation obvious, the references to the 'outside world' (eg a couple of brief mentions of New Labour) desultory, what happened too predictable - but I kept coming back to the book, even when the only way I could read it was on the tiny screen of my iPhone, and was constantly surprised at how quickly I was flying through it. I do think Freud did a very good job of relating how hard and thankless acting really is; I don't know anything about it, of course, so for all I know the whole thing might be completely inaccurate, but I often felt like the book was really shining a light into the dark corners of a lifestyle regarded by most as seductive and glitzy. Though the characters all attained some success and glamour at one point or another, I never envied them. Indeed, Freud's portrayal of the actors' constant nerves on, off and backstage, before, during and after scenes, made it seem like my worst nightmare more than anything.
Still, given that Freud is a respected author who has written six or seven other novels, and that my desire to read this book was sparked by rave reviews in the Observer, Guardian and Telegraph, the style is remarkably amateurish. Something that struck me about the writing was that I honestly couldn't see any great difference between this and authors like, for example, Erin Kelly and Kate Morton, who'd be unlikely to be thought of as literary or to get much of a mention in the broadsheet review sections. This doesn't mean I thought the book was badly written - just that I expected something more impressive from such a lauded writer. If I hadn't known who wrote this, I definitely would have guessed it was a youthful debut penned by someone who'd been an aspiring actor for a couple of years.
I enjoyed reading Lucky Break, but I doubt it'll leave any great impression on me. A few hours after finishing the book, I'm already struggling to remember much about the characters. I often read popular chart fiction titles and am pleasantly surprised when they turn out to have more substance than I expected; this was the opposite - a supposedly literary novel, garlanded with praise by the critics, that was really rather light and fluffy. One to take on a lazy beach holiday or read on a train journey.