I will read fiction about almost any topic, as long as the story, the characters, and the writing engage me. Certain topics are shoo-ins — I can’t resist books about boarding schools and colleges; I’m fascinated by novels that have a medical angle; and I gravitate towards fiction about World Wars I and II. Other subjects don’t intrigue me in the least, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about them. I can’t think of a subject I’m less interested in than college baseball, but I absolutely loved Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Because, of course, The Art of Fielding isn’t “about” baseball. Westish College baseball is the vehicle Harbach uses to develop the relationships among his characters. Similarly, Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me is “about” professional ballet — but what engaged me was the story of the characters’ struggles to come to terms with their limitations. Learning a little bit about ballet was a bonus.
I’m an avid theatergoer, so it was with high hopes that I picked up Fallout, by Sadie Jones. The novel is set in England during the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on four young people struggling to make it in the world of theater: Luke, a playwright, Paul, a producer, Leigh, a stage manager, and Nina, an actress. Love triangles ensue — Luke, Paul, and Leigh; Luke, Nina, and Tony, an older theater producer. Clandestine love affairs destroy long friendships and working collaborations. The novel is painstakingly constructed, unfolding at a steady pace and returning always to Luke, the protagonist.
Luke is the son of an alcoholic and neglectful father and a mentally ill mother who has been hospitalized during most of his childhood. He has an artist’s sensibility from an early age, with intellectual curiosity and an intense drive to succeed. He writes journal entries, poems, and plays (before he has ever seen one performed on stage):
He read anything, everything, and then his Shakespeare again. And again . . . He watched all the plays on the BBC, wrote down the names of the playwrights and transposed the dialogue in a high-speed scrawl, not looking at the page . . . The life inside him was tearing him up; writing himself inside out in lined-paper notebooks, rushing and looking and working and moving but knowing all the time that he was just staying still.
The reader knows from the prologue that Luke will become a success. What the reader doesn’t know is how he achieves his success, and the fates of his friends and lovers. The most interesting parts of the book, for me, were about Luke as a creator of plays and about the experience of being part of a theatrical production. Jones beautifully describes Nina’s reaction to seeing the audience respond to Luke’s first hit play:
And then the first laugh; a scattered, surprised sort of laugh, moving from the front of the audience to the back as if it were asking permission, and not quite reaching them. She looked at Luke again. He had dug his face further into his hands, hunched down in his seat. Then there was another laugh — this one quick and shocked — quite loud and from the whole theatre together. It was as if the audience had decided as one how they felt, from then on there was a batting back and forth between the actors and the watchers, like percussion; beat, line, laugh, line, laugh, beat and the play came to life.
Luke’s plays come to life in Fallout, but the characters never really came alive for me — especially Paul and Leigh. In one scene, Leigh protests against the misogyny she perceives in a play produced by Tony (and starring Nina), but, disappointingly, her character becomes little more than a love interest until much later in the book. Luke is certainly the most well-developed character, but I never warmed up to him. Nina, the damaged product of a manipulative stage mother, shows promise as a well-rounded character but ends up as a stereotypical victim who can’t accept that she deserves happiness. Tony, her cruel and abusive husband, is a villain with no redeeming qualities except the love of theater: “Luke saw that they loved theatre, and cared for the plays and helpless as he was in his hatred of Tony as Nina’s jailor he could not help but admire his incisive mind. He had a rare talent; he knew what worked.”
There’s a certain grim humorlessness in this novel; I found myself wishing for some comic relief. I recall reading somewhere that no one in a Chekhov play is ever happy, and this book reminded me a bit of a Chekhov play. (There’s even an aspiring actress named Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.) The tone of the book surprised me; it’s very different from Jones’s last book, The Uninvited Guests, a clever comedy of manners that takes place in an Edwardian country house. The Uninvited Guests is filled with black humor, and the pace moves briskly. I applaud Jones for trying something different and perhaps more ambitious with Fallout. I haven’t read her first two books yet — The Outcast and Small Wars, both set in the 1950s and both very well-received.
Sadie Jones, the daughter of an actress and a writer, worked as an unsuccessful screenwriter for 15 years before becoming a novelist. Her debut novel, The Outcast, won the prestigious Costa Award for a first novel in 2008. What kept her going, she told the London Telegraph, were “tales of writers such as Mary Wesley and J.K. Rowling who became successful after years of struggle . . . Now it’s nice to be someone else’s hopeful story.”
Fallout received excellent reviews in two London newspapers, the Guardian (“Fallout: Sadie Jones at the Peak of Her Powers”) and the Independent (“a hugely enjoyable contribution to the backstage genre”).
The publisher, HarperCollins, has generously provided me with an extra copy of Fallout. If you’d like to receive it — along with a copy of The Uninvited Guests — please write a brief comment below about why you’d like to receive the books. I’ll pick a name out of the proverbial hat. U.S. entries only, please.
I read this book as part of a blog tour. To visit more stops on the tour, click here.