Review of Lucky Break
As a writer and also as an actor, I find it impossible to write fiction about the theatre. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why I enjoyed Esther Freud’s novel Lucky Break so much. In an interview with the New York Times, Freud says wanted to find some books from which to get ideas for this novel, but couldn’t find any. There wasn’t a single book that “described the tedium of searching for work, the terror of auditions, the grind of rehearsal, the pleasure of cracking a character’s voice or posture, the exhilaration of performance.”
Freud, an ex-actor herself, based Lucky Break loosely on her own experiences at drama school. The novel follows three actors for a decade and a half as they try to make it in “the hardest profession to break into,” as they’re told by their teacher on the first day. Reading this book as an actor, there are many sycophantic words I could use to relay how much I love this book, but there’s one that tops the list: authentic. So many books about actors or the theatre focus solely on the glamour or the lack thereof; Freud covers everything, from being told you’re guaranteed a part, then never getting it, to being cast as the lead in a film, to working with a backstage so small, one can hardly turn around.
When we first meet Freud’s three main characters, it seems easy to predict what their futures will be: Charlie, the exotic beauty, will become a star, and with his looks and talent, Dan probably will, too. Poor Nell, with her freckled face and dumpy figure… well, there’s no hope for her, is there? These preconceptions exist because they’re true, and Freud follows them for awhile. But then Freud adds that element that’s missing from other “theatre novels”- the nature of the business. What goes up must come down (or at least stumble back a bit) and sometimes hard work does pay off, even if it takes more than a decade. Freud spins an absolutely truthful tale with her main characters and doesn’t let her secondary ones off the hook either: talented, feisty Jemma has to choose between motherhood and life of an actor, another classmate finds success in the job he left to become an actor in the first place, and a few that were snidely deemed talentless manage to keep their careers afloat against all the odds.
While this is certainly not Freud’s first work (she’s written six novels previously, one being the acclaimed Hideous Kinky, later made into a film with Kate Winslet), her skill is still staggering. The thing that jumps out most is her incredible ability to sneak in important facts in the most casual of ways. Her chapters leave you hanging, but she lets you wonder whether Nell’s Fringe show will do well while we revisit Dan as he tries to make ends meet despite starring on the West End. Then, in that same chapter, Freud will have another character mention in passing that they saw Nell’s show and she was astoundingly good.
Freud’s characters are also real people. Like the stereotypical actor, they can be overly dramatic, vain, and feel entitled to the world. Like real actors, they can also be incredibly insecure, are constantly worried where their next paycheque will come from, and wonder daily why they hadn’t been sensible and studied business. And like any human being, they make terrible mistakes, succeed beyond their wildest dreams, and everything that falls somewhere in between. The reader cares about the characters even when they hate those same characters.
It’s difficult from my point of view to say whether or not this book would alienate a non-theatre-person reader. Freud doesn’t stop to explain any terms (that includes the British phrases in addition to the theatrical jargon), but the situations clearly outline to what the terms are referring, making it fairly easy. I’m going to take a chance and proclaim that Freud’s talent for writing will allow even a person who has never set foot in a theatre to enjoy this book.
If you’re interested, check out the NY Times article from which I got the quote; it’s a good read.
(Fun and self-indulgent fact: Last March and April, Rachel performed at the same off-West End theatre that Freud toiled in during her acting days.
And, in case you’re wondering, she is related to Sigmund Freud- she’s his great granddaughter.)
Charlie understood why it was that actors talked with such intensity. How could you not say “darling” when you’d journeyed through a lifetime with a person, bared your soul, wept tears, exchanged kisses, borne heartache, reached the heights of unimagined bliss? Why would you shake hands somberly when you’d once died in their arms?
The audience were in […] chatting, happy, innocent, not knowing that only yards away there were people suffering in agony for their sakes, and then to Nell’s horror the lights dimmed, the music faded and forgetting everything she’d ever known, even her name, she stepped out into the empty white glare of the stage.
But for all Nell knew, tonight there might be someone in for whom this play would be the bright spark of their lives. Someone changed forever. Set on a different course. As a child, she’d been taken to see a touring production […] and from almost the first scene she’d felt her heart expand until she’d thought it might be going to burst. I’ll do anything, she told herself, as the actors laughed and fought and danced, I’ll dress up in sacking, play an old woman, sweep the stage, if it means I can be like them.
“There’s always another girl,” Charlie said wistfully. “Although, occasionally, the other girl is you.”