Sunday 15 September 2019

Story about the complications of flatsharing falls a bit flat

Fiction: The Flatshare

Beth O'Leary

Quercus, €18.20

Beth O'Leary
Beth O'Leary
The Flat Share

Anne Cunningham

Tiffy earns a tiny salary as a junior editor in a London publishing house that specialises in DIY and home- crafts books. She's still living in her ex-boyfriend's place and needs a flat. Leon is a palliative care night nurse who has a one-bed flat in Stockwell and needs extra cash. He spends weekends with his girlfriend, so he advertises a flatshare (including a bedshare) on Gumtree, stating that it would be suitable for someone with a day job, as they'd never be home at the same time. The rent for this odd arrangement is all Tiffy can afford and with nothing else out there, she takes it.

There is, of course, the thorny issue of sheets for this one bed. And then there's Tiffy's stuff, which is everywhere. There's the weird neighbour who keeps a mountain of banana crates in the front yard. There's also Tiffy's ex, who's behaving very strangely. She has a publishing deadline for a crochet book, written by an ex-hippie - quite mad - who thinks deadlines are for wimps. She's taking phone calls to the flat's landline from Leon's brother, currently banged up in prison. Add to all of this the fact that Leon and Tiffy haven't actually met and only communicate through post-its, and you should have a riotously funny novel. But I'm sorry to say this is not the case.

According to the press release, The Flatshare's rights have been sold in 30 territories and there's already a TV deal. The book sold for a six-figure sum. Louise O'Neill has endorsed it mightily... "it's incredibly uplifting and joyous. I have fallen head over heels in love with Tiffy and Leon". Being marketed as 'hotly sought after', it is, apparently, on a par with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and new author Beth O'Leary is being compared with JoJo Moyes, Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes. But I'm afraid Tiffy is no Eleanor Oliphant and Beth O'Leary does not display the empathy nor the fun of JoJo Moyes, the flair for farce of Helen Fielding nor the manic wit of Marian Keyes. Moyes, Fielding and Keyes, and indeed Eleanor Oliphant's Gail Honeyman, are all incredibly good at introspective passages.

They can balance this introspection - usually dark-hued and self-deprecating - with genuine, original, fresh comedy. That is their strength and their appeal.

The Flatshare is not very funny. And since introspection is hard to film, it doesn't have a lot of that, either. Films of books by the authors I've mentioned have fallen very short of the impact of their novels, even if they were box office gold. And this, essentially, is my problem with O'Leary's novel. It hardly reads like a novel at all, but rather like a TV script. In fact much of the adaptation spade work has already been done, as whole tranches of this book are written in script format rather than prose style - laid out, it would seem, for the highest bidder. I have no doubt this book will sell and probably the TV production, too. But it is so slavishly formulaic, so intensely written-for-purpose, as if the author (whose background is in publishing) simply studied the rom-com form scrupulously, got the ingredients "right" but then just baked a similar but very stale cake. Maybe I'm old-fashioned but I think a novel should bring something new (novel?) to the reader. There is nothing new, and virtually no comedy at all, in this disappointing debut.

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