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In Kathleen Tessaro's first novel, Elegance, the life of the unhappy heroine is given a substantial fillip by a beguiling self-help guide to grace and beauty, written by a former Nina Ricci employee called Madame Dariaux. Her fashion advice is sharp and smart, and provides a dynamic force which gives the novel energy and shape. In Innocence, there is no such text to guide the Ohio-born, London-bound heroine, Evie Garlick, nor her creator. Armed only with her audition speech ("To be or not to be...") Evie hits Tufnell Park's Actors' Drama Workshop Academy, steeped in centuries of English literature, with a curiosity about mushy peas and a desire to take the London acting world by storm.
Almost immediately, she meets Robbie, a glamorous, troubled actress from New York who quickly becomes her best friend. The ups and downs of the relationship between the two young women provides the backbone of this book, along with Evie's career developments, her disastrous romantic escapades, the birth of her son Alex and her flat-sharing shenanigans.
For most of Innocence, the action swings between Evie in 1986 at drama school and 10 years later, when Robbie is dead and Evie a single mother, teaching drama and poetry in an adult education centre and living with a widow and a concert pianist. Tessaro is good at flat-share life, at conversations in communal areas and the late-night making of toast and tea. She can write humorously about the degradations of the jobbing actress; auditioning for a deodorant commercial, Evie has to stand semi-clothed with arm raised while a male model sniffs gingerly at her armpit.
Yet, as a whole, Innocence is disappointing. Although it is a cheery, unpretentious sort of book, it attempts to deal with dark subject matter such as mental illness and bereavement. The light and dark elements lie very uneasily side by side. Tessaro provides a lot of detail about things that do not seem important, such as arranging books, but we often have no idea of the heroine's thoughts and feelings.
This makes it hard to care. Tessaro's addiction to one-sentence paragraphs doesn't help, lending a melodramatic emphasis to material that is already not entirely plausible. I didn't have much patience for the sections in which Robbie, killed in a car accident, comes back to haunt her friend in schoolgirlish fashion, chatting about the "underworld" (it's like Grand Central Station) and craving Diet Cokes.
Although Innocence is a sincere novel, some of the writing is extremely careless. The Thames viewed through the windows of the Savoy Hotel "shimmers like a slick sheet of cool crystal". There are also baffling observations about the world that really hit the nail on the thumb. Of the centre where Evie teaches, we are told, "The kitchen is like all institutional kitchens: terminally untidy".
Tessaro's dialogue can also be quite hit-and-miss. When the rock-and-roll boyfriend uses phrases such as "Went to a Catholic day school... Typical working-class stuff", it does not, like the novel as whole, quite ring true.
Susie Boyt's 'Only Human' is published by Review
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