Book review: Love, Unscripted by Owen Nicholls

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

From the moment we call tell the difference between a long-stemmed red rose and a box of quality chocolates, we have been schooled to view love as a thing of perfect glory.

It is, so a certain rather dominant strand of popular culture tells us, a thing of glorious wonder and transportive truth that once created is incapable of disappointing, growing old or lose its initial magical power to alter our lives for the better.

But there’s the thing – delightful though that vision is and it is so compelling that it has found enduring expression in countless romantic comedy movies, romance novels and Cupid-struck songs, it is not inviolable from the same decay and entropy that affect everything else humanity touches, precisely because we are, despite our best intentions and most ardent articulation, desperately fallible.

We don’t want to be, as Nick Marcet, one of two key protagonists in Owen Nicholls’ debut novel Love, Unscripted, will attest as he grapples to save what appears to be a doomed relationship with the love of his life Ellie, but we are and it tends to muddy that breath-catching vision of love that we work so hard to believe in and promulgate.

The means of promulgation most near and dear to Nick’s heart is cinema, driven not only by a lifelong love of the artform and his job as a projectionist at an independent cinema in London but by a trenchant belief, welded deep down into his romantically idealistic soul, that love in real life can be exactly as it is in the movies.

After all, we must have got the idea from somewhere right?

“When we arrived at the back entrance to the cinema, we both independently decided we were now the world’s greatest bank robbers on the heist of the century. Think Newman and Redford in The Sting, George Clooney and friends on the Ocean’s or the cat burglar in The Simpsons going after the world’s largest cubic zirconia.” (P. 175)

His unshakeable belief in what the hilarious priest in The Princess Bride announces as “wuv, twu, wuv” takes a significant battering however when Ellie, after four perfect years of togetherness, decides she has had enough and leaves Nick, leaving his ongoing When Harry Met Sally moment a mute and sallow facsimile of its original romantic splendour and destroying a belief in love that founds its validation at a party on the night of President Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

There he met Ellie on one exquisitely lovely and meet-cute heavy night where they connected over a love of cinema, music, the quirks of life and the willingness to listen to each other.

It’s a perfect night by any means with both of them (but mostly Nick) prone to putting their feet in their mouth as you always do when you’re trying to get to know someone who is, at that point, inherently unknown, but Nick doesn’t see all that; he simply sees a Hollywood rom-com meeting that plays out exactly as he imagined, ripping through the banalities of day-to-day life like the Alien bursting from the unfortunate man’s stomach.

It’s that heavily movie-influenced perspective that prevents him from appreciating that theirs was never a cinema romance – none ever are since we tend to muck things up magnificently in real life (though not as fatally often as Nick immediately thinks he will with Ellie) – and that very real, imperfect-admitting solutions are needed to get things back on track.

That’s if they can be steered in that direction, something that Nicholls deftly and alternately puts in doubt and then right back again through the gloriously grounded wonder that is the superlatively well-executed Love, Unscripted.

Owen Nicholls (image courtesy official Owen Nicholls Twitter account)

Moving between chapters which document, sometimes minute-by-minute, their first very promising night of knowing each other, and those that deal with the current romance broken reality where Nick is dealing with all kinds of life jarring setbacks, Love, Unscripted is a delight, ardently shouting out to the heavens about romance’s undeniable beauty and promise while very realistically, and sometimes comically but always confrontingly, laying bare its often less-than-perfect execution.

Suffused with a plethora of cinematic references which lay bare how massively in debt, not always in his favour, Nick is to his great love of cinema – it emerges, naturally enough, that Ellie is quite possibly an even greater love than that but it takes time as our blinkered protagonist fails time and again to distinguish skewed belief from unrelenting reality – the novel is a gem that manages to both uphold the idea of romance as a great and glorious thing while admitting that it does have its imperfect moments.

Many of them, in fact, all slated home to the idea that we, and mostly Nick let’s be fair, are deeply fallible (he is a loveable but often maddening creation although once you realise that he is us and we are capable of much the same kind of self-sabotage, you tend to be much more forgiving of the man).

Thus holding tight to an unashamed love of cinema generally and rom-coms in particular, but also to the idea that what we think love will be like is often not what it is at all, Love, Unscripted bounces between the past and the present, revealing a great deal about what us tick in the process.

“I swear to God that Richard is the last person I should be messaging. I was just scrolling through old messages from Ellie and I came to one that had her dad’s number in it. I can’t even remember why she sent it to me. I think her phone had died and she wanted to keep in contact. Ready access to my phone is a big mistake in my present condition. Forget fingerprint identification; the next iPhone should come with a breathalyzer.” (P. 289)

What makes this pitch perfect novel such a delight is the way that in balances hilarity and grim reality, or at least as grim as rom-coms get because for all its truthfulness, and its there in spades, Love, Unscripted is a heart on its sleeves romantic comedy, so damn well.

A love letter to love itself, but also to its cinematic representation, and yes, cinema as a whole with a massive number of film references inserted into the narrative to mostly dizzyingly good effect, the novel is an absolute pleasure to read, taking many of the tropes and cliches of the genre and giving them a fresh, new and refreshingly honest gleam.

As a near-contemporary tale that is told over four years between Obama’s election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012, Love, Unscripted is an absolute pleasure to read, as winsome and fun as any modern British rom-com which unlike their American cousins, wonderful though they are, tend to have their feet on the ground every bit as much as they have their heads in the clouds.

If you have wondered, in good times or bad, whether love can ever be as good as it is in the movies, Love, Unscripted is your giddily good, happily grounded answer, one that soars to the very heights of meet-cute perfection even as it casts a sage eye over the resulting imperfections of love in the real world, never once losing hope that life can surprise you still when it comes to affairs of the heart.

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