Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers.
Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.
― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
How I love when art gets meta: when a writer or artist has the self-awareness and genuine capacity to make fun of themselves. That’s what we mean when we say the writing is “honest”. There’s no agenda to convince or win over the reader, just a need to show, everything, even the warty not-attractive bits.
With her first novel, Meeting Damian Lewis, Christine Wilson has succeeded beautifully in that effort.
The novel has a lovely house of mirrors quality to it. The author is a fan of Damian Lewis and her protagonist is a fan too. That woman, Ruby Reed, herself is a writer-to-be, writing a story about, you guessed it, meeting Damian Lewis. Or rather the journey she undertakes in order to meet him.
Have to admit, it was Damian Lewis in the title, meeting Christine Wilson online, and her so kindly sending me a copy of her book which got me wanting to read it. And even though Damian Lewis makes few appearances in the book once Dick Winters lands safely in France, I’m glad I read it. (Does the protagonist get to meet her idol in the end? No spoilers from me…read it yourself and find out!)
It’s chick lit, and the writer makes no bones about it, but she has the uncanny ability to step outside herself to be genuinely self-referential. It’s chick lit that defends chick lit while still mocking it at times. I mean to say that the book calling itself chick lit makes it somehow surpass the limitations of chick lit. In short, the protagonist Ruby Reed is a recently divorced woman with a job in a pub, and no prospects for upward mobility. Her no-good louse of an ex-husband was unfaithful. She’s heartbroken and lonely. She first “meets” Damian in that wonderfully Spielberg-ian scene (in the best sense) of Dick Winters leaping so bravely from a plane over France in Band of Brothers. With a pot of beans bubbling over on the stove and the smoke alarm blaring, Ruby can’t tear herself away from the screen until she knows Damian…er Captain Winters…is safe on the ground.
The funniest bits come from when Wilson tells us the protagonist had to inject so-and-so a detail to make her story more interesting, less like boring old regular life. You’re left wondering how much of that the author herself did and how many supposedly interesting bits we inject into our own stories. It sort of holds up a mirror on how we tell our own stories, in a cunning, but not at all unkind way.
Ruby’s attendance in a writer’s group gave the book some of its most compelling scenes. Wilson wonderfully captured the sweaty palms of a woman way out of her comfort zone, trying something she’d never thought to try before. She tells herself her goal is to write something that Damian would read and perform. But, you know from the get-go that what she’s going to attain is so much greater than that (although meeting that goal would be pretty darn awesome, no doubt). I saw a lot of myself in this book and particularly in those scenes. And in these passages:
She knew it was a weird thing to do but, having spent most of her adult life being totally normal, was there any harm in becoming a bit strange now? Something about him made her feel that her destiny was in some way connected to him…Was that so strange?
Jack’s harsh but well-meaning advice when Ruby confides her plans to him:
Real people just don’t meet actors from the movies. These people are fantasies. They are not real; they are just playing a part. In real life they are totally different. That’s the way it is.
And how beautiful is Ruby’s defense to that:
Yeah, well I spent the past fifteen years discovering that ordinary dreams don’t come true, not marriage dreams, that is. There are no happy ever afters and forsaking all others. So now maybe it’s time to find out if crazy dreams come true instead.
As Ruby’s adventure of self-discovery continues, you can’t not smile at this:
….she had another thought; she had hardly thought of Damian Lewis all week!
In the writer’s group scenes, in the guise of a bitter drunkenly cruel failed writer who is also in the writer’s group, we get a great metaphor for the demon in the room, that nagging voice of insecurities and fear always lurking in the corner when we’re trying to be creative. (Later on, there’s a bit of symmetry when Jack, Ruby’s friend and (maybe) potential boyfriend has his own version of the demon in a co-worker undermining him.) It’s in that writer’s group where you see Ruby really develop, not as a writer, per se, but as a person willing to take a risk on a crazy dream. It’s quite an uplifting theme! The idea that an obsession bourne in the lowest point in your life can transform your life into something you never would have imagined. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and often unexpectedly so. Allowing yourself to be surprised by your own strength and resilience is half the battle. Letting go in order to let in. Just as Wilson mocks chick-lit, she also speaks derisively of self-help stuff too. But here it is, a successful chick-lit novel with a great self-help message. 🙂
Only fault I can see in this book is a fault I see in any work that is not literary (nor meant to be): a bit of a lack of depth. We realize very late that Jack won a BAFTA for his work. Wha? Till then we were lead to believe he was a lowly local producer with no connections any where. And except for one drunken outburst, Jack was just short of a Mary Sue character, ie a character that’s sort of too perfect to be true. Okay, he did face some very real obstacles having to choose between his kid and his job and his girlfriend. I just wanted to hear more about him. Ruby’s ex-husband was the polar opposite, in that he was a heartless cad. (Who calls up an ex who you’ve cheated on to announce the arrival of your baby with another woman? Do men really do such things? Argh.) He was such a cad that I wanted to know more about him too. But, no, this project wasn’t about deep character dev. And it was fine that way! Instead we got a pleasantly readable “he said, she said” traipsing along these character’s lives, knowing that they’ll probably end up quite okay in the end, but still keeping us reading to see just how they’ll manage it.
I’d recommend Meeting Damian Lewis to anyone, Damian Lewis fan or not, looking for an honest feel-good story of boot-strapping resilience. BTW, all the pics I chose for this post, except Dick Winters, of course, are Damian being the sought-after celebrity he is. They’re meant to mirror the image Christine chose for the cover of her book: a fan’s eye view of Damian. You can find the book at Amazon.