Charismatic young playwright Luke Kanowski, escaping a dark family history to forge his own destiny in London’s Theatreland, heads the cast in a welcome if less sure-footed return to period heartache by talented British writer Jones (The Uninvited Guests, 2012, etc.).
Notably deft in her reconstructions of not-so-distant eras, Jones here tags Biba fashion, the Osmonds, T. Rex and a myriad other evocative details of the late 1960s and early ’70s as background to the four stage-struck hopefuls at the center of her fourth novel, each of them significantly molded by their parents’ influences. Luke has broken away from a grim home life—his father’s a boozy immigrant, his mother’s a long-term patient in the local mental asylum—after a chance meeting with two strangers, aspiring stage producer Paul Driscoll and student Leigh Radley. Paul and Luke are destined to become firm friends, while Leigh, caught between them, will become Paul’s girlfriend after a humiliatingly hurtful early encounter with Luke. Actress Nina Jacobs has survived the lifelong pressure of a competitive mother by walling herself in passivity. While Luke begins to find success as a writer, Nina is pushed by her mother into a relationship with Tony Moore, a manipulative stage producer of ambiguous sexual orientation. Tony not only marries Nina, but casts her in a play about a torture victim, which makes her a star—and bewitches Luke into wanting to save her. Jones’ gift for emotional intensity has not deserted her, but her material here is less beguiling than in her two first (and strongest) novels, The Outcast (2008) and Small Wars (2010). Nina is an unsympathetic character, and the psychology underpinning events develops in increasingly schematic fashion. Crises, broken promises and bruised hearts ensue, and although the story comes to rest in the right place, it never quite escapes its sense of staginess.
Skillful, intelligent, always readable but this time less-persuasive work from an appealing author.