Saturday 24 March 2018

Review: Lucky Break by Esther Freud

Bloomsbury, €14.60, Paperback

Her first novel, Hideous Kinky, established Esther Freud as a warm and witty writer and the film of the book, with Kate Winslet, went on to bring her an even wider readership.

She has an interesting pedigree, being the daughter of the painter Lucian Freud and the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. But it was her childhood with her hippy mother and their travels together in Morocco in the 1960s that were the more important early influence. Her semi-autobiographical account of that time became a bestseller, resonating with those who were part of the Sixties search for enlightenment, or who had been children at the time.

Her seventh and latest novel, Lucky Break, which traces a group of acting students from their first class in 1992 right through to 2006, was also sparked by her own background. When she came back to London from North Africa at the age of 16 she studied acting.

The fictional drama school in Lucky Break, Drama Arts, is modelled on The Drama Centre, Chalk Farm, where Freud was a student and whose best known alumni include Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan. It prides itself on a mixture of Stanislavsky and 'Tough Love'.

The novel centres on four people: Nell Gilby, 5'3", the Ugly Duckling; Charlotte (Charlie) Adedayo-Martin the most beautiful girl in the year -- tall and angular with toffee-coloured skin, almond eyes and peroxide hair cropped short; Dan Linden, ambitious but of moderate talent; and Jemma, a girl of moderate ambition only. Freud traces the ups and downs of their relationships and careers.

Nell has a crush on Dan but Dan soon gets together with Jemma. Nell is reckoned by the school not to have what it takes and is asked to leave after her second year. Charlie seems destined to be a future star.

It is an episodic novel with various chapters devoted to each of its four principals. In the early chapters there is a lot of scene setting, sitting about in pubs etc. It is only much later on in the post-Drama Arts working world that the characters blossom and the novel expands.

Nell works as a solicitor's clerk while still pursuing acting jobs and goes for an interview with a Golden Globe winning film director, a cross between Russ Meyer and George A Romero who makes a predictable lunge. But the chapter entitled, 'The Other Girl', where Nell nervously waits for a phone call from her latest agent, is beautifully judged. Nell's story is ultimately the most satisfying and her fairytale ending is totally deserved.

Charlie, who started out as a beautiful swan, has diet and looks issues. She is up for an unappetising part as a headmistress but she goes walkabout from the interview. Later, she seeks solace in Reiki healing and unexpectedly finds a way to calm her life.

Dan dreams of working with Scarlett Johannson but it doesn't happen. Dan walked twice round the block to shake all thoughts of his family off. Was it possible to be a great actor, and still be loyal to your wife?

The big roles pass him by. While he is at a meeting for a role in Los Angeles the casting director is more interested in casting his six-year-old daughter. Back in London he gets cast in a stage play and expects the worst but it becomes a huge hit. He always worries about getting involved with his leading ladies but doesn't and stays contentedly married to Jemma with their four children.

There are few surprises in this leisurely paced novel and what happens is predictable. Like life, perhaps, even an actor's life which can indeed be a strange one. There can be many months between jobs and there's the despairing fear when coming to the end of never working again.

Freud's warmth and affection for the characters is clear. Even so, it's a bit of an ask to make the reader care about a group of self-centred actors and she does not always pull it off. But it's a tribute to her skill that she manages it most of the time in this curate's egg of a novel.

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