Friday, October 9, 2020

Book Review: The Understudy

By Jami Deise

With prestige television writers having developed a reputation as being this century’s equivalent to Charles Dickens, it’s not surprising that many novel writers are going into TV. Crime writer Megan Abbott joined HBO producer David Simon’s writing room; Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman and Tom Perrotta have also adapted their novels into series. But in today’s high-tech world, there are myriad ways to share stories: Twitter, YouTube, Wattpad, to name a few, and novel writers are looking at all kinds of media to distribute their work. 

The company Serial Box has combined the cliff-hanger format of TV with the written word of the novel, and its latest offering is attached to big names in the crime fiction genre. Sophie Hannah (The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket, The Mystery of Three Quarters), Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go, I See You, Let Me Lie), B.A. Paris (Behind Closed Doors, The Breakdown, Bring Me Back), and Holly Brown (Don't Try to Find Me; A Necessary End; This is Not Over; and How Far She's Come) have teamed up in a novelists’ version of a TV room, producing The Understudy, which Serial Box calls “Big Little Lies meets Thirteen Reasons Why.” The ten episode series can be downloaded on both iOS and Android devices for ten dollars. 

The story centers around a London drama academy, where four teenage girls who dream of stardom are joined by a fifth, who may or may not have ulterior motives. Last year, the group nearly broke apart because of how Ruby bullied Jess. This year, someone else is bullying Ruby. Could it be motherless newcomer Imogene? Or someone else? The episodes are actually told from the points of view of their mothers, each of whom is very different from each other, yet all would do just about anything for their daughters. 

Serial Box describes each episode as “the length of the average commute, designed to fit into today’s fast-paced mobile lifestyle.” It did take me about 20-25 minutes to read each one, so I guess Serial Box is aiming for subway commuters who aren’t refreshing their Twitter feeds every 30 seconds. 

I received all ten episodes at once, and while I did not read them all in one sitting, neither did I stop when the episode ended. The series was a great fit for someone with my reading tastes, and the voices of the four authors worked well together. Each writer wrote for a specific character, and the mothers all sounded unique, while the narrative flowed. I did have some trouble remembering which mother belonged with which daughter – and I thought the ending relied too much on coincidences – but overall, it’s a very enjoyable read, and it sets itself up nicely for season two. 

Fans of these authors, and of female-driven psychological thrillers in general, will seek out The Understudy and would enjoy it on any platform. I’ll be interested to see if Serial Box attracts fans who don’t usually read novels. It’s an interesting concept, and I’d like to see it succeed.

Thanks to MPRM Communications for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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