I have loved Esther Freud’s writing from her very first book. I was working in central London when it was published and I can still remember checking the shelves of the nearest branch of Waterstones every day to see if the paperback edition was out yet. Hideous Kinky: a semi autobiographical account of two young sisters travelling in Morocco with their hippy mother. It had sounded perfect, and oh it was.
Because you see, Esther Freud drew characters simply but oh so clearly, and pulled me into worlds, just as perfectly realised, that they lived in.
Peerless Flats, another semi autobiographical account, this time of a teenage girl in London, was a little less appealing but it pulled off the same trick. More books followed and there hasn’t been one that I haven’t liked, but none of them touched me in quite the way that first book did.
But Esther Freud’s most recent novel, Lucky Break, touched me in a rather different way, maybe a rather more mature way, by simply setting out lives of young people so different from the young woman I was and drawing me into their lives in just the same way.
A different book for a different age. I’m not sure if that’s saying exactly what I want to, but I really can’t think of a better way than that to explain myself.
Lucky Break opens as students arrive for their first day at a London drama school. Those early days are captured perfectly. The joy at that first dream coming true. The curiosity about the others who have arrived in the same place because they were dreaming that same dream. The excitement at what is ahead. And the fear that they might be one of the ones who falls by the wayside, who isn’t quite good enough.
The characters are simply and clearly drawn, and their world is perfectly observed, but that is just the beginning. Three individuals from that big picture become the focus, and Esther Freud follows their stories through the drama school years and the decade that follows.
It’s an approach that works well, allowing so many stories to be told through the leads and a fine supporting cast:
- The young actor who works hard, does everything right, but never seems to have that one lucky break.
- The hopeful whose dreams are dashed at the very start.
- The star pupil who can’t find that same success in wider world.
- The young actor with looks talent and confidence to whom things come easily.
- The ethnic actor who can only get auditions for stereotypical roles.
- The successful actor who expects the world to move about him …
Some predictable stories maybe, but they are utterly believable.
And so it is with the incidents along the way:
- An agent who promises to call, but never does.
- Embarrassment at meeting a fellow student reduced to working in a pizza chain.
- A casting couch incident.
- A catastrophic outbreak of acne.
- Misunderstandings over love scenes.
Clichés become clichés for a reason.
Ultimately, the characters and their stories caught me. Because they were simple, clear, and utterly believable. Because they weren’t entirely predictable, and because the expected pay-off didn’t always come. Because so many details, details to make you laugh, to make you cry, to infuriate you were so perfectly observed.
It was clear from the first page that the author was writing about a world she knew inside-out.
I’m quite deliberately avoiding specifics, because I’ve read reviews about this book that say far too much about the characters and their stories. And sometimes it’s nice to know who you are meeting, but in this case I think it is better to meet the characters without too many expectations and then follow their stories.
And Lucky Break is all about the stories.
It wasn’t perfect.
I was a little disappointed that they were in the main career stories. Family lives, love lives, friends not involved somehow in the acting world, were given little time.
The timescale and scope of the book made the story a little episodic. That was inevitable, but sometimes the gaps were in the wrong places, and key-developments were off-stage.
Ultimately though, I kept turning the pages, because I wanted find out what would happen.
And that’s the sign of a good story, isn’t it?