I was a bit apprehensive about reading The Understudy by David Nicholls: it was an impulse buy, and only afterwards did I realise that the same author wrote Starter for Ten. Now, I've not read Starter for Ten, but I did see the film, and lamented that what could have been an enjoyable, cosy romcom was ruined by one depressing plot element. Brian, the protagonist, has an obsession with the high-brow quiz programme University Challenge and is in the end given the chance to participate as part of his university's team. The outcome is the worst possible: Brian almost accidentally manages to besmirch his and his team's honour in a way that makes sure that he'll not be given kudos for his very real knowledgeability. It's painful to watch this happen. Losing honourably, or even losing because of human, understandable nerves, would have been much better - plus, Brian screws things up for his team mates (including Benedict Cumberbatch before he was famous) too. The hero himself - or antihero, rather: he's not always that likeable - bears the dashing of his childhood dreams remarkably well, and by the film's end has a fair chance getting the girl (not the blonde, glamorous one - the wry brunette who also happens to be gorgeous). But the viewer - or this viewer, at least - remains unsatisfied.
What bearing does this have on The Understudy, then? Well, this story too centers around a shambolic protagonist with a dream and very little luck - but some appeal for smart girls. Stephen C. McQueen (the C. is an Equity requirement, fot obvious reasons) is an English actor yearning for the big break. He believes he is really good, but mostly just manages to get roles playing corpses in TV crime dramas. His latest gig is as an understudy to Josh Harper, superstar voted "twelth sexiest man", who plays the lead in a star vehicle play about Byron at a London theatre. If Josh would only miss a few performances, Stephen is convinced his career would be made. And then, to boot, he falls for Josh's wife Nora.
The novel is funny and well written and manages to give you a certain comfort-reading feel, in spite of Stephen's constant mishaps. However, these mishaps really weigh the story down. I was never fond of comic tales where the comedy hinged on everything going wrong - I end up feeling too sorry for the characters involved (one comforting thing about P.G. Wodehouse's stories is that you can be pretty certain everything will turn out well in the end). There is another danger with the comedy of failure, though: after a certain point, a character who's always down on his luck stops being relateable and starts becoming slappable. At one time, Stephen reflects on "how he wasn't nearly as nice a person as he pretended to be", and you can't help thinking that he has a point. Like Brian, there's a lot of the anti-hero about him. Just because he's not spectacularly successful, it's not really an excuse for making quite such a hash of things as he does.
To the book's credit, it doesn't follow the Starter for Ten template completely, and is at times unpredictable. Some of the pickles Stephen gets in, which you calculate on coming back to scupper him when things seem to be looking up in time-honoured cheaters-never-prosper fashion, turn out to be no big deal. In one instance, though, The Understudy resembles Starter for Ten: getting the girl turns out to be more important for the protagonist than fulfilling his dreams, and I'm not sure I buy it. In one scene, Stephen's ex admits that she never thought he was much good as an actor. I found this irritating, as I was under the impression that I was reading a novel about the problems of a talented and able actor in a crowded professional field - but if he's not even that good at acting, then what's the point of the whole exercise? Of course, Stephen's ex may be wrong. And yet, when stardom hasn't come calling at the end of the book he is as philosophical about it as Brian was about messing up University Challenge. He's in with a chance with Nora after she's found out that Josh has cheated on her (the novel is delightfully scathing on the subject of the "sex addiction" of film stars), and that's the main thing. Die-hard romantic as I am, though, I do think life ought to be about more than just having half a chance with someone you fancy. Not knowing how you are going to earn your crust in the near future is something which should give a grown man pause for thought. And in the end, a novel called The Understudy which undervalues an actor's love of theatre can't help being a tad disappointing.