“The summer days were long and exquisitely balanced, as if happiness were so strong it could not leave them, but perhaps sharpened by the unexamined sense of something hidden; the more permanent wounds of their longer lives waiting, undiscovered.”
That’s my favorite sentence from one of my new favorite novels, Sadie Jones’ Fallout (HarperCollins, digital galley), a romantic drama played out against the setting of theatrical London in the heady 1970s. Protagonist Luke, an intense young playwright, shows an early flair for the dramatic when as a schoolboy he helps his mother escape from a mental hospital for a day-long excursion. Later, a chance encounter with young producer Paul and his girlfriend Leigh leads to the trio starting a fringe theatre company above a pub and sharing rooms, giving their all for art. Leigh hides her feelings for Luke, a serial womanizer until he meets actress Nina. The willowy beauty, bullied by her failed actress mother and married to a bisexual West End producer, becomes a star as a torture victim in a successful play. Luke can’t resist the role of white knight, but betrayal lurks in the wings as he struggles to remain true to his best self. Jones is a pro at evoking youthful love, friendship and ambition, as well as the inevitable fallout of choices made in the heat of passion. Her backstage tale deserves the limelight.
If Edward St. Aubyn ever decides he wants to be anything but a celebrated writer, perhaps he should consider becoming an acupuncturist. In his breezy satire Lost for Words (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley), he expertly needles the posturings and pretensions of the literary prize balloon. Pop! Pop! Pop! Of course, he skewered class and culture in his celebrated Melrose family novels (At Last. Mother’s Milk), but he was much more subtle and a lot less cheerful. This is farce, and he’s having fun.
First, readers meet the assorted, and mostly unqualified, judges of the Elysian Prize for Literature (St. Aubyn’s stand-in for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker), headed by a publicity-seeking MP. Most have read only a handful of the 200 of books submitted for the prize, but that doesn’t stop them from coming up with favorites, forming alliances and trading votes. As the long list is winnowed down to the shortlist, the writers vie for attention. They include a Serious Novelist for whom writing is torture, in love with a lovely and promiscuous writer sleeping with both her married editor and a French semiotics specialist. She misses out on the Elysian when a publishing mix-up results in her publisher inadvertently submitting the manuscript of a cookbook, which then becomes a metafictional darling. Meanwhile, the cookbook author’s nephew, a spoiled Indian prince, is plotting revenge because his self-published opus, The Mulberry Elephant, is overlooked. The judges remain divided over the merits of an historical novel about a folksy young Shakespeare and a profanity-laced screed, wot u starin at, from Scotland. St. Aubyn include spot-on parodies of excerpts from these books; I’ll never be able to read Hilary Mantel or Irvine Welsh again without grinning.
The judges are all asked what they’re looking for in a winner. A media personality is all about “relevance,” while an academic professes an interest in “good writing.” When pressed to be more specific, she stubbornly replies, “especially good writing.” I nominate Lost for Words.