Entertainment Book Reviews

Friday 23 August 2019

Something To Live For: 'Uplit' debut lacks depth and nuance of the genre's best

Fiction: Something To Live For

Richard Roper Orion, hardback, 352 pages, €16.99

Richard Roper: ‘An Eleanor Oliphant for men’
Richard Roper: ‘An Eleanor Oliphant for men’
Something to Live For by Richard Roper

Meadhbh McGrath

We first meet Andrew at a funeral, desperately scrabbling to remember the name of the deceased. Our hero has arranged the ceremony, but he never knew the man being laid to rest. This is Andrew's job, as a local council worker in the department for death administration: when someone dies alone, it's up to him to sift through their belongings and track down the next of kin, or, when none can be found, locate funds to cover the burial costs. As Something to Live For opens, we learn Andrew has made arrangements for 25 such funerals in the past year, and attended all of them, too: "It was, he told himself, a small but meaningful gesture for someone to be there who wasn't legally obligated."

And so our first impression is of a kind, contemplative loner who draws our sympathy - until, just a few pages later, we discover that Andrew is also a liar.

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During his job interview, he misheard a question and ended up covering his tracks by pretending he was married with two kids. Over the next five years, Andrew goes to great lengths to keep up the pretence, developing a comprehensive spreadsheet tracking details about his imaginary wife and children, when really he spends his spare time filling his shabby, damp flat with model railways and chatting on the ModelTrainNuts forum.

But he's about to be caught out: his boss is set on holding a Come Dine With Me dinner at each staff member's home, and Andrew can only put it off for so long. At the same time, a friendly new hire, Peggy, disrupts his carefully maintained social isolation, the product of an unknown trauma that is revealed later in the novel. Andrew is estranged even from his sister, his only relative, and when she gets seriously ill, her husband places the blame firmly on Andrew.

The publishing world loves a trend - we're still seeing the Gone Girl effect on bookshelves and bestseller lists - and this year's big bet is on 'uplit': bittersweet stories that celebrate kindness, compassion and empathy. So it makes sense that Something to Live For is being likened to Gail Honeyman's smash hit Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - an "Eleanor Oliphant for men", with David Nicholls and Nick Hornby namechecked too to reassure male readers - and in his debut, Roper follows Honeyman's template assiduously.

But where her finale has real poignancy, Roper's disclosure of the terrible heartbreak Andrew suffered in his youth feels flat and anticlimactic.

In trying to lay the groundwork for this revelation, Roper has rather beaten us over the head with it: Andrew freezes up every time he hears the opening bars of Ella Fitzgerald's cover of 'Blue Moon', a bafflingly frequent occurrence that grows so repetitive by the novel's close, you may be quite happy to never hear the song again.

The premise is intriguing, and Roper mines Andrew's work for tragicomic gold. Outside of it, however, he struggles with uneven pacing and sketchy plotting. Andrew's brother-in-law Carl is laughably wicked, a flimsy caricature of greed, while Peggy's budding affair with Andrew lacks any romantic or sexual electricity.

It's a slow yet easy read, and often a funny one, too, but as it stutters to its conclusion, the story grows barely credible. Apart from Carl - the one-dimensional villain of the piece - everyone is inherently good, willing to drop everything to come to a stranger's aid as Andrew finally plays host to his colleagues. It feels like a diet Eleanor Oliphant, a hollow clone stripped of its charm, and absent of the depth and nuance that made that title such a phenomenon.

After such an unconvincing resolution, the closing gesture feels even more rushed and superficial: a woolly initiative aimed at combatting loneliness that seems to amount to a Facebook group for unpaid professional mourners. Something to Live For may offer a fleeting mood boost, just don't expect it to stay with you past the final page.

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