October 2003

Veronica Bond

fiction

A Thing (or Two) about Curtis and Camilla by Nick Fowler

Somewhere between chick lit and lad lit falls Nick Fowler and A Thing (or Two) about Curtis and Camilla. Composed from the man's point of view, but consisting mainly of a love story gone awry, Fowler's novel doesn't know quite where to fall in that spectrum, which makes it just that much more appealing. Simply put, Curtin Birnbaum is a loser. He's the kind of guy who loves with abandon, who composes sappy songs for emotions past, and who, ultimately, does not get the girl. He's an annoying sap with whom everyone can identify: either you dated someone like Curtis, or you are Curtis. He picks apart every moment he can remember, hoping to find some explanation for the demise of his relationship and he lets his fantasies run rabid, detailing the moment when he will again ignite his lost love. He's extremely annoying, but I suspect only because it's easy to see yourself in him. So, maybe Curtis isn't so much a loser as he is a regular guy.

A Thing (or Two) about Curtis and Camilla is an ode to popular culture. In a Nick Hornby-esque manner, the novel is studded with literary references -- Nabokov and DeLillo being some of Curtis's favorite authors -- and the chapter titles -- "Something in the Way" for example -- are often excerpts from well-known pop tracks. The use of pop culture to embed the protagonist in his time and place isn't, by any means, an original literary device, but it rarely fails to immediately connect a particular audience with a story, which is exactly what Fowler achieves within the first few pages of his novel. Having done that, Fowler is free to jump straight into his main story line: love.

The story "…is a Love Story," Curtis narrates during his introduction. It is of the "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" genre, with some twists, both tragic and comedic, mixed throughout. From the moment Curtis meets Camilla on the steps of St. Anthony's Church, he is entranced with her. Obsessed might actually be a better word, as Curtis indulges his tendency to overanalyze all of Camilla's words and movements on their dates, the questions in her e-mails, and what he believes is their perfect pop cultural match. For once, though, it's the guy who clings to every memory of his teenage-like crush: "Hadn't Cammy also been obsessively reviewing and rewriting the finer points of our opening Love Scene?" he asks. "I mean, do women even do that?" The answer, of course, is yes, but it's refreshing to finally hear a man admit to this manner of thought.

Curtis's story is melodramatic, as most love stories are, but it's aware of that, which makes it somewhat excusable. Fowler's florid style of writing, mimicking those authors he touts as Curtis's favorites, help appease what would otherwise be a flat romance. He writes of Curtis's recalling the day he met Camilla: "I remember you so fiercely. As Manhattan lay sprawled under that first balmy day, hands clasped under its thawing head and its teeth no longer chattering, but chewing on a hayseed. Because it was Spring at last! April 1. The air soft with relief, bright with hope, and all the more precious because this teasing weather was always just an ellipsis between New York's stark winter prose and the hot drivel of its coming summer."

Of course, as with all romances, the couple's love begins to sour as money and ambition, or the lack thereof, become an issue. With Curtis constantly broke and stagnantly hoping to land a record deal, Camilla's last straw is finding Curtis on the subway, playing his guitar for passengers' handouts. Even worse, to Camilla, is that Curtis denies this action, only proving his dedication to a passive lifestyle. When Camilla leaves, Curtis falls into a depression, keeping track of his "Camilla-less days" and calling her answering machine just to hear her voice. It's a sad sap who does this, but it's also not too far off from what most everybody would do in the same situation.

Though the beginning of this book is all too believable in its desperation, the latter portion is far less credible. With Curtis's money situation becoming dire, he receives a letter in the mail from his mother, demanding repayment on a loan and threatening legal action if the money is not obtained. The author goes a bit too far in his stretch for comedy, including embarrassing scenes at a local gym and the class for which Curtis is a nude model. Likewise, when Camilla does return and reveals her abusive relationship with her father, Curtis runs off to confront him, creating a soap-operatic scene that simply seems out of place. Not only does it play out clumsily, its inclusion only serves as a totem on which Curtis can blame the failure of their relationship instead of learning anything about himself. In this way the novel is no different, or better, than most chick lit. Curtis continues to believe that Camilla would return if only he had enough money or if only her father weren't part of her life, when it's really about believing in and learning to take responsibility for yourself. Camilla expresses this when she pays to have "Curtis Birnbaum is Coming!" printed across the panels of Tower Records on his birthday, but the lesson goes unnoticed.

What Curtis, like so many other individuals, needs to learn is that happiness cannot be based on the presence of another individual -- it must be found for yourself. He puts Camilla on a pedestal and completely loses himself in her which, of course, is what drives her away. I spent half of the novel loving Curtis and his openness to all of the stupid things I thought only girls did when they had crushes, and the other half hating him and everything he expected Camilla to do for him. But that may well have been the perfect mix because, as Curtis harshly learns, no one can be too much of the former without any of the latter. "You're so amazing, Camilla," he says, "Whatever happens, I don't know, I guess I just hope I know you forever." It's that feeling -- that desire to remember everything as perfect and meaningful -- that resonates throughout this novel and that gives it a life most other love stories do not have. A Thing (or Two) about Curtis and Camilla is a Love Story -- it's a Hate Story, it's a Depressive Story, it's a Broke Story, and it's a Dream Story -- but mostly it's a story about something everyone has known.

A Thing (or Two) about Curtis and Camilla by Nick Fowler
Vintage
ISBN: 0375713230
398 pages