Modern love story caught in two worlds
Fiction: Acts of Love, Talulah Riley, Hodder & Stoughton, hdbk, 304 pages, €16.99
Literature and Hollywood have always made for cosy and intriguing bedfellows… but is it a tad unfair to say that when beautiful actors pick up the pen, the results can be somewhat varied? Certainly, there are notable successes, among them Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher, Ethan Hawke and James Franco. Yet for every Franco, there is a Pamela Anderson.
The latest hyphenate in Hollywood is Talulah Riley, a promising actress of some repute. You may have seen her in Inception, Thor or St Trinian's, and in spite of an acting career that's in rude health, Riley has kept herself occupied in other spheres.
As well as being the COO of retail mobile app Forrge, there has been the small matter of a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Yet her conspicuous beauty has been at times a burden: the tabloids are more than comfortable to depict her as a trophy wife (she recently divorced from billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk).
It could be argued too that, in a publishing industry that is becoming increasingly risk-adverse, a novice writer with an existing profile is catnip for publishers. Those with even a modicum of celebrity will draw the curious and the partisan and, irrespective of actual ability, will land those elusive book deals.
And so the question begs to be answered: is Riley's first foray into novel writing any good?
The short answer to that is 'yes and no'. Riley has no shortage of smarts, yet her writing, perhaps overburdened with the weight of expectation, can be overwrought: "In her face, Bernadette St John had all the necessary symmetry, all the youthful indicators and hyper-feminine features so revered by the opposite sex," goes the opening line of Acts of Love. '"But these delights masked a mind riddled with a poisonous bigotry; a profound and very real contempt for men that extended beyond anything reasonable or healthy."
And straight out of the gate we go with our compelling heroine with her 'retrousse' profile and inner monologue framed by Victorian fiction. Bernadette is a journalist - the Man Whisperer - for Squire Magazine, a job that puts her in the path of several rich and influential men. She is powerful in her work for many reasons: not only is she a truth teller, she is also ambitious and passionate. Eventually, she meets a minted and enigmatic entrepreneur, Radley Blake, a man she doesn't like from the off, but in time finds that she has more in common with him than first meets the eye. The pair meet when Blake, who won't let any journalist near him, gives Bernadette the opportunity to shadow him at work and home. She is curious about the man and the mystery, and so agrees.
So far, so Fifty Shades, yet Riley attempts to skew the cliché somewhat. Bernadette is a fleshed-out and pulsating character, for a start: aware of her own beauty, and has no issue in using it to get her way with men, yet is still oddly likeable. As the novel progresses, Bernadette sheds her armour, and there is the not-inconsiderable element of another love interest in the mix, Tim.
Riley may not be breaking new ground with her careworn plot, yet it is her bold writing style that really grasps the reader's attention. Overblown and quasi-literary in many places, Riley suffers the rookie error of believing that florid description maketh the book. In reality, her love of lyrical prose gets in the way of the action and slows things down. Riley, too, falls into the trap of cliché: in one passage, Radley was "as strong as his muscled frame suggested… Bernadette shut her eyes and leant her head on his ridiculously broad shoulder." Refreshingly modern, this ain't.
And as such, Acts of Love is caught in a hinterland between the commercial and the literary; the pool read and the prize contender.
There's no doubting that Riley writes of the rarefied world of media and millionaires with authority, and there's plenty here to suggest that in time, she will find her genuine, authentic literary voice and really make an impression. For now, Acts of Love is ideal for those who miss the likes of Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland. This professes to be a love story for the Instagram generation. Alas, others like Curtis Sittenfeld or Emma Cline are writing for that very audience with much more vim and élan.