I received a copy of Understudies from the author in exchange for an honest review.
About the Book:
Understudies is one of those books that’s tough to describe. After several vain attempts to do so, I gave up and checked Outpost19’s website. I was glad to find the following there, which sums up Understudies better than I can:
“A high school teacher begins to question the course of his life after a famous young actress moves into town. In the starlet’s shadow, his girlfriend, his mother, his neighbor, and his students take on strange new dimensions. Told in a series of snapshots, Understudies presents a sharp, funny, and heartbreaking study of beauty, celebrity, and everyday needs.”
I’ll admit it. As I read the first couple of (very short) chapters in Understudies, I wasn’t sold. Mangla’s style is unique, and it takes some getting used to. But when I read chapter 3, I was sold.
The narrator has just returned home from his neighbor’s house, where the two of them were watching the actress move into her new home. Missy is the narrator’s girlfriend. Here’s chapter 3, in its entirety:
“Missy, all dirt and sweat, was sitting on the porch steps. ‘I don’t see what the big deal is,’ she said, skimming through a magazine she’d picked up at the supermarket checkout.”
I realized then that Mangla has a gift: He can capture moods, reactions, subtexts in just a few easy words. His style is astute, concise, and subtly clever. In fact, his writing has an almost poetic quality to it. Perhaps a bit of an acquired taste, but it didn’t take me long to acquire it.
You get a good sense of who Mangla’s characters are from the first moments you encounter them. There is Chudley, for instance, the friend and neighbor who hangs out on his roof, chills beers in the gutter, and is rather unhealthily interested in what the actress is doing. There’s the aforementioned Missy, who comes across as the frustratingly enigmatic woman. There’s the narrator’s mother, who finds herself dispensing advice to everyone she meets. And there are the teenage boys whose band the narrator joins — one of whom is actually named Cuisinart. These ordinary people, with all their human details, are set against the mysterious actress, about whom little is actually known. (In the novel, she doesn’t even have a name.)
The novel itself is brief but does not feel too short. Most chapters aren’t more than several paragraphs long, but it works. The word “snapshots” in the description above is entirely accurate — it’s like you’re zooming in tight on a few moments in the narrator’s life, then pulling back so far that you can’t see anything in between. Then it’s time to zoom in close again for another look at a tiny sliver of the narrator’s day. You could almost — almost — imagine the chapters as dated diary entries.
It’s one of those stories that begins where it begins and ends where it ends. If I looked hard enough, I could identify reasons why the beginning and ending pick up and leave off where they do. I like it as is, though, without thinking too much into it. It’s almost like you ride along with the characters for a stretch and then leave them to go on their way, having enjoyed the bits of your life that overlapped and knowing they’ll probably figure it out.
Intrigued? You can read an excerpt from Understudies right here.
The Verdict: Enjoyable
I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Understudies. I can’t think of another novel I’ve read to compare it to, which is always fun. If it sounds interesting to you, I’d say go for it. It does what it sets out to do nicely and is a pleasure to read.
What books started out iffy for you but ended up winning you over?