Book Review: B.A. Paris, Clare Mackintosh, Holly Brown & Sophie Hannah – The Understudy

What do you get when you put four of the most acclaimed female writers of this generation together in one book? A stomping great thriller!

Carolyn, Bronnie, Elise and Kendall are four mums at the exclusive and prestigious Orla Flynn Academy, an acting school for teenagers wanting to get into the world of stage and screen. The entire book is written from the perspective of these four women, and so each author takes on the role of one. A book about acting, where the writers act out one character each… a very intriguing, almost meta prospect. Someone – or multiple people – is out to terrorise their daughters, who are all in a close ‘gang of four’… and all of the suspicions fall on either Kendall’s daughter Ruby, who has a history of bullying antics, or Imogen, the weird, mysterious new girl.

The plot is entertaining, even if it’s not the most exciting book that’s ever been made. It feels like a cross between Pretty Little Liars, Desperate Housewives and a budget horror movie – one where the jump scares and spooky plot twists appear at every corner, but never really payoff into a massive satisfying crescendo. Far too much is decided through talking and not enough through action, and some of the plot twists are never particularly explained – the ‘how’ not being the main problem for one in which two characters are run off the road by a mad driver in a wig, but the ‘why’, with the only explanation for it being that she just wanted to fuck as much stuff up as possible.

Indeed, the presence of an Othello-like character is discussed in a narrative which is thick and heavy in theatre references. Adam Racki, the instantly unlikable school headmaster, rattles quotes from plays off with every sentence – if only he was as good at running a school as he is at memorising pointless passages! The characterisation of the mums is solid, and I’ve got a feeling that they weren’t all completely given the main plot at the end – who did what, etc. The lack of knowing what really happens feels authentic – if Kendall really didn’t know about her husband’s infidelity, then why would Holly Brown when she was writing the scene?

You can tell the subtle differences between the authors’ writing, which adds to the intriguing concept of the novel. I’d heard of all bar Holly Brown when buying this one, but she seemed to bring Kendall to life more than the others managed to. I really felt for the character and her constant inner turmoil really made me sympathise for her – rather more than Sophie Hannah’s Carolyn, who still felt largely unknown by the end. Clare Mackintosh’s Elise was probably my second favourite, and I felt her character was the most theatrical and caricatured. So cut away from her family’s life, they don’t eat together; their maid does everything; she sends money to the school instead of watching her daughter Sadie’s performances; even has an affair with a married man just because she can. Elise is what some may call a ‘superbitch’ – but she’s extremely entertaining to read. Bronnie was a little beige on the surface but her personality and inner nature shone through in the end – a testament to B.A. Paris.

The chapters are longer than most modern fiction – taking around 30 pages each – but they come across more as acts and scenes than true chapters. I felt like the authors had a lot of fun writing this, and it’s a really enjoyable, light read. If you ignore some of the plot problems and simply revel in the soapy melodrama you’ll have a great time reading this one. And it serves as a great pathway into the books of four great writers – what more could you want?

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