It's now standard childrearing advice that overpraise can damage a child. Parents don't need to tell their little darlings that they're geniuses.
They just need to reassure them that they're loved. Sadly, this advice came too late for Laura Cassidy. Her father, a semi-famous actor, was constantly telling her that she was destined for greatness. "Your name is going to be written in bright and dancing lights... a legend in your time, that's what you'll be."
At night, when Laura's mother and sister are asleep, the pair of them sit up late, watching classic films - The Big Sleep, In a Lonely Place, To Have and Have Not, Double Indemnity. She herself is named after the heroine of Otto Preminger's film noir, Laura, and idolises those goddesses of the silver screen like Barbara Stanwyck and Veronica Lake. Laura sees herself in the future following in their footsteps as "the movie world's leading light. Star of the screen".
Her father's death by drowning, when Laura is 12 years old, is the turning point from which she never recovers. Now in her mid 20s, she has failed to conquer Hollywood. "My name hasn't left the ground, let alone appeared in shining lights." After a breakdown which led to her temporary stay in a clinic, St Jude's, she lives uneasily at home with her mother in Galway, a city whose vibrant artistic scene only makes her own lack of success in that department all the more personally painful, especially when she's still receiving emails from a former friend with the implausible name of Imelda J Ebbing, who brags of her latest successes on London's West End and who lands the lead in a Martin Scorsese-directed biopic of Gloria Swanson.
Then a new director comes to town, and Laura thinks she might finally get her big break as Blanche DuBois in his production of A Streetcar Named Desire. "Get this part," thinks Laura, "and you can kiss a long goodbye to all your worries. No more mother on your case about sorting out your life. No more talk of St Jude's. No more doctors and useless pills. Get this part, Laura and your daddy will be so proud."
Anyone familiar with Tennessee Williams' classic play will know that the fragile but feisty Blanche is a dangerous role for a woman who already struggles to deal with her emotions, especially one who says on the first page that Sunset Boulevard is the "best movie ever", and who once told her doting father: "When I grow up I'm going to be Norma Desmond." Uh oh.
It wouldn't be giving away any spoilers to say that things don't go entirely to plan, and the return of Laura's sister, Jennifer, who's spent her life globetrotting and saving the world, only complicates the domestic situation further.
Laura has a boyfriend of sorts, a handsome but brutish young idler that she meets for hurried, clumsy sex in the woods, but with whom she daydreams of a big romantic future. When he, "all schmooze and banter", shows a bit too much interest in the glamorous Jennifer, and she starts "laughing at everything out of his mouth", the stage is set, as it were, for the final act. Any resemblances to A Streetcar Named Desire are, of course, entirely intentional.
Laura Cassidy's Walk of Fame is a strange book. Alan McMonagle's first novel, Ithaca, published in 2017, seemed to take its cue from Patrick McCabe's Butcher Boy, and garnered much praise for its increasingly warped flights of fancy. This one bears a number of similarities to its predecessor, but the tone is less sure-footed. It may be that readers drawn in by Ithaca will fail to be captivated. That will mean finding new readers, which is a tricky proposition for a novelist trying to build a faithful audience.
Who will like it? That's also hard to say. It's a nebulous book to describe. In places, bizarrely, it even has some of the flavour of contemporary chick lit. There's nothing wrong with that, but it makes the novel hard to pin down.
When dealing with characters who grapple to separate fancy from reality, it can be a challenge for readers to know what's true and what isn't. If that's the point of the story of the unhinged fame seeker, it can be enthralling to decipher, as those who've seen King of New York or Joker can attest. Here, it's just laborious trying to figure out if the overall air of unreality is intended, or just clumsily done. I read it twice, to see what I'd missed first time, and I'm still not sure.
The late Anita Brookner was peerless when it came to creating heroines who are one step removed from the modern world, having been seduced by reading too many books into misunderstanding the real nature of life, and of love. Something of the sort could have worked brilliantly here, with movies instead of literature.
The character studies aren't deep enough in these pages to sustain a whole novel, though, and the tone certainly isn't dark enough to build tension. The reader is never fooled for a second. It's painfully obvious from the start that Laura Cassidy is delusional. Or is that the point?
If so, then it's hard to see what is the point of the point. She's a likeable and often funny young woman, but her plight never rises above melodrama. It will take a third novel before knowing if Alan McMonagle can follow Ithaca with something equally promising as his debut.