How will this fadge?
My master loves her dearly;
And I (poor monster) fond
as much on him;
And she (mistaken) seems
to dote on me.
This is from Twelfth Night, at the point where the penny drops for poor Viola. Disguised as a boy, she has been delivering love messages from Duke Orsino to Countess Olivia, but things are getting messy.
The plot devices of gender confusion and courtship via a third party that worked so well for Shakespeare are given a run for their money in Only in the Movies, a light-hearted young adult novel from William Bell of Orillia, Ontario.
Jake Blanchard is a new student at a fine arts school with a passion for filmmaking and a skill for set design and construction. Right off the bat he meets two girls. Alba is the standard object of teen crushes: tight sweater, strawberry blonde hair, no zits. She’s an actor, and a few bricks short of a load. (She thinks Shakespeare is known as “the Bard of Avonlea.”) Vanni, on the other hand, is homely and smart. Naturally, she’s a writer. Jake enlists Vanni to write love letters to Alba and feed him lines of dialogue when he arranges to meet the blonde bombshell on a bridge with Vanni hidden underneath. (Echoes of Cyrano de Bergerac.)
Complications ensue. Turns out that Vanni is a lesbian and, in the act of writing to Alba, also falls for her. (Or so Jake thinks.) And what of Alba? Her heart pines for Chad – rich, a hunk, even more bricks short of a load. Thinking that Jake is such a good writer, Alba enlists him to feed her lines to say to Chad – and it works! Chad falls for Alba, but then Chad starts two-timing her with Snowy. Then Jake has a big revelation, realizing he has loved Vanni all the time. She reveals that she isn’t a lesbian after all and has set her cap on Jake from day one, and they quote John Donne at each other (just in case we were getting tired of Shakespeare). Needless to say, it all ends well.
All of this is a lot of fun. Bell captures the group nature of teen romance: the idea that, in school cafeterias everywhere, a girl is asking another girl to find out if a guy she has a crush on has really broken up with some third girl. Thriftless sighs and women’s waxen hearts – Shakespeare got it, and so does Bell.
The novel, however, takes a long time to find its feet. In the book’s prologue, Jake ends up, by chance, on a film set, and realizes, suddenly and profoundly, that the movies are to be his life’s work – despite his father’s wish that he join the family carpentry business. All of this preliminary action is less sparkly than the scenes that follow. He writes some of his experiences as screenplays and makes references to classic films, but we just don’t believe his passion. Far better realized, ironically, is his feel for carpentry:
There was a rhythm to it: fit the shingle, hold it in place, nail it to the wall with a pneumatic power stapler – whap-whap! Every few minutes the air compressor would kick in, rattle away for a bit, then cut out with a sharp hiss. There was a light breeze off the river, and the cedar gave off a fragrance that always reminded me of summer.
In this small, poetic moment, we learn more about Jake than in the whole first act, with its heavy-handed set-up and explication. Even in the comic moments, Jake is more contractor than movie buff. In one of the funniest passages, he tries to resist Alba’s charms by conjuring mental images of strength: “stout concrete pillars, thick steel girders, those robust braided cables they use on suspension bridges … thick oak planks glued and bolted together. Cast-iron stanchions. Cement roadbeds.” By the time we get to Kevlar and titanium mesh we think Jake is going to succeed, but then Alba kisses him. Farewell, man of steel.
There is a mannered quality to all the characters in this drama, as though they were created from a collage of predetermined elements rather than allowed to grow naturally. The particularities of Vanni, for example – her combined Irish and South Asian heritage, her passion for poetry, her big nose, her lippy approach to teachers – never really coalesce. Every so often she says “eejit” or “didjever” as though to remind us of her Irishness.
This kind of farce requires a light, witty touch, and Jake’s story suffers from initial sogginess. Once the story starts to move, however, Bell’s gift for comedy (especially classroom hijinks), slapstick, and loveable nerdiness is given room to breathe.