Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: "Understudies" by Ravi Mangla

What a funny, insightful, and touching little book! (And I mean "little" not in a derogatory sense—Understudies is billed as a "short novel," and it's just a little more than 120 or so pages.)

Our somewhat jaded (and unnamed) narrator is a high school teacher. Or, in his words, "It could be said I worked as a purveyor of worldly knowledge, a molder of young minds...It could also be said I supervised the next generation of disappointers in the intervening hours between bus rides." His life—and the lives of those around him—are changed when a Golden Globe-winning actress moves into his town.

His bizarre best friend Chudley becomes obsessed with the actress, and the narrator begins to worry that this obsession may cause Chudley to do something inappropriate. But what he doesn't realize is he is becoming increasingly focused on the actress' presence as well. But he's unable to ascertain whether he's actually interested in her, or if he's just using her as a distraction from his unsettled personal life, as his live-in girlfriend, Missy, is pressuring him for more permanence in their relationship.

As he tries to make sense of his life, and of his mother's new role as an advice columnist on the web (despite her own phobias), he finds himself hanging out with a group of high school students, including one of his own students, and they form a band, which reawakens his zeal to perform. And strangely, these high school students—even when stoned—are more insightful than he is about life.

Understudies is a humorous and moving story told in vignettes about a man in the throes of a mid-life crisis before he hits mid-life. But in addition, it's a commentary about our fame- and celebrity-obsessed culture, and how we find ourselves following the latest trends and searching for solutions to our problems anywhere we can find it. It's also a story about the need to feel loved and needed, to feel secure.

Ravi Mangla is a terrific writer. He has a great sense of humor, which was definitely reflected in so much of this book. Many sentences made me chuckle. And even as you shook your head at the ludicrousness of some of the situations and characters (including a student named Cuisinart), you realize that underneath all of the satire, it's a story that seems familiar and realistic. I look forward to seeing what's in store for Mangla's literary career.

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