Lucky Break by Esther Freud
To understand Esther Freud's Lucky Break, one need only watch The Glee Project, American Idol, or their predecessor and paragon, Fame. To make it in the theater world (at least as portrayed in the movies and on television) all one needs is a whole lot of talent, determination, ambition, and -- you guessed it -- a little bit of luck.
Yes, it's blasphemous to compare literature to reality television. Yet the genre has given rise to a sense of entitlement when it comes to fame, or rather, infamy. It perpetuates the myth that a lucky break is easy to come by, if only you can snag yourself a role on a hit show. America's got talent, idols, teen moms, and Kardashians. They should all get their shot at stardom, right?
But now back to the book. Lucky Break centers on an eclectic cast of aspiring actors as they court that tawdry heartbreaker, stardom. The novel opens on their first day at the esteemed Drama Arts Academy in London. Enter Nell, the frumpy underdog who has her eyebrows plucked for the very first time only when she gets her headshots. (The horror!) Then there's Dan, the handsome Serious Actor Dude, the striking ingénue Charlie, a few leggy blonds, flamboyant gay guys, and one uptight director who ruthlessly cuts them all down -- only to make them better, of course. Just add stock characters, mix, and stir!
Of this motley crew it is Nell who possesses something raw and real -- though she only gets cast as a maid and then is kicked out of Drama Arts after her first year. The ugly ducking, the tortoise among hares, Nell has it, though her it has yet to be discovered. Hers is a beautiful struggle, and one that readers could identify with, if only her circumstances felt less like a reality show concoction.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but throughout the book I wanted the plot to get out of the story's way. Maybe I'm ignoring the details and fixated on the stardom trope because I'm still stuck in an Amy Winehouse moment in which the supremely talented self-destruct when fame becomes toxic. It diminishes focus on the work that sustained the artists -- and got them noticed -- in the first place. The real issue this novel brings up is whether a lucky break is a shot at stardom, or an opportunity to exit the game with your dignity and life intact.
But here's the problem: there's a difference between wanting to be noticed and wanting to be known. Shows like Glee, as much as I love them, treat these divergent goals as one and the same. Having a show isn't just shortcut to being a singer or dancer or actor or pastry chef at a fancy restaurant. It has become an end in itself, and why not? Today anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and a smartphone can define her brand and become a YouTube sensation. Ruthless ambition is no longer directed at a specific creative goal. It's honed in on fame as an objective, not a byproduct.
Stardom has never been exclusively about artistic authenticity, and those who make it big have always relied on a combination of talent, hard work, luck, and the narrative they create for themselves. Anyone who pursues a creative field quickly discovers the hard work and talent part of the equation don't count for as much as we'd like to think. It's a career determined by others' opinions of your work (not to mention body). That's where ambition -- a.k.a. you gotta do what you gotta do -- comes in. Often, the sacrifices required, be it working in a pizza joint to make ends meet as Nell did, or taking that fast track to fame by shooting a sex tape, run counter to the sensitivity and introspective nature of those who want to be heard, rather than noticed.
It is this tension, and the sacrifices and compromises that Nell and crew are forced into, that makes Lucky Break semi-interesting. But when Nell eventually does make it big, it somehow feels wrong. After the honesty about the hard knocks on the road to success -- lascivious directors, sleazy agents, smarmy affairs, nudity in low budget films -- it seems false to imply that "making it" makes for a happy ending.
If we've learned anything from living in a celebrity-drenched era, it's that a vast chasm lies between dreams aspired toward and dreams actualized. We have countless cautionary tales about the price of fame, and you never know which frumpy Nell will eventually pull a Britney or a Lindsay. We live in an age where we exalt our celebrities, only to then brutally cut them down.
Some of the characters in Lucky Break do end up satisfied without quite making it. And let us not forget that Freud pursued the dramatic arts before becoming a novelist. And let us also not forget that this critique comes from someone with a stack of faded headshots, half-written novels, scripts and essay collections, rejection letters from editors and literary agents. Ambition might be blinding, but it's hard to give up on the idea that you're going to be a somebody. In some way, we all want to live forever, and none of us does.
Lucky Break by Esther Freud