Sadie Jones gained a reputation for writing strong literary fiction right out of the gate. Her debut, THE OUTCAST, was an historical novel that was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. More recently, her last book, THE UNINVITED GUESTS, was sort of like “Downton Abbey” --- with a pretty crazy twist. Now, with FALLOUT, Jones returns to more familiar territory with a literary novel about young people trying to make their way in London's theater scene in the 1970s.
At the center of FALLOUT is Lukasz (Luke) Kanowski, who grows up in a small town in northern England. He shows a great deal of academic promise from the start, but winds up working in a dead-end office job right out of high school instead of fulfilling his potential at Oxford or Cambridge. What's holding him back? Among other things, the fact that his mother has been in a mental institution for virtually as long as Luke can remember. Luke's father never visits his wife, instead leaving Luke to carry that burden alone. Luke's relationship with his mother is complicated; sustaining him is the memory of a once-in-a-lifetime trip the two of them took to see an exhibit of French paintings at the National Gallery, after 13-year-old Luke snuck his mother out of the mental hospital. He remembers the excitement of the city and his mother's ecstatic response to the paintings by Cezanne and Monet, but he also recalls her very public breakdown and his inability to stop it.
"As much a love letter to the excitement of writing and the thrill of creation as it is a story about love itself, FALLOUT illustrates the many variations of what people call love..."
Unbeknownst to Luke, his mother's breakdown was witnessed by young Nina Hollings, an aspiring actress who was visiting the gallery with her more or less estranged mother (who's been too busy pursuing her own acting career to actually be a mother to her daughter) and her aunt/guardian. Nina will never forget the fragile woman having a breakdown, or the young boy who guarded her so fiercely yet tenderly.
Over the next decade, these two young people will continue along these same trajectories, as fate and a shared passion for the theater brings them ever closer together. London's theater scene is divided between experimental, fringe theater groups and more established, bigger-budget West End productions. Nina, who is eventually reclaimed by her mother (who seems to want to live vicariously through Nina's career), becomes an actress, while Luke --- seemingly oblivious to his own charms --- becomes both a heartbreaker and a successful playwright. When the two of them connect as young adults, their relationship seems both full of hope and doomed to failure.
In FALLOUT, Jones offers an enthralling backstage pass to the London theater scene in the 1970s. The incestuous nature of casting and producing, the deals that are struck and broken, the potential for great success and catastrophic failure are also paralleled by the personal and romantic entanglements of Luke, Nina, and those who surround them. As much a love letter to the excitement of writing and the thrill of creation as it is a story about love itself, FALLOUT illustrates the many variations of what people call love --- both the damaging, self-destructive sort and the kind that sustains and upholds us.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 2, 2014