Beware the Obsessive Understudy

By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 14, 2009


By Valerie Martin

Doubleday. 286 pp. $25

What sort of person becomes an actor? Someone looking for certainty, Edward Day suggests in the opening pages of Valerie Martin's briskly chilling new novel: "Inside a character I knew exactly who I was, the environment was controlled, and no one was going to do anything unexpected." Edward has good reason to dislike surprises. Just before he graduated from high school, his beautiful, capricious mother moved in with a female lover; six months later, she killed herself after leaving three phone messages Edward didn't answer because he was out losing his virginity to a woman in his theater arts class. You could say Mother left him a few issues to deal with.

Two of Martin's best books have first-person narrators: Dr. Jekyll's housemaid in "Mary Reilly" and the childish slave owner in "Property." Edward is her most brilliant feat of literary ventriloquism to date. He's smart and self-knowing; good actors need to be both, and his shrewd commentaries on acting and theater (plus a few quotes from his reviews) convince us that he is a very good actor.

He's also self-centered and cold at the core. Following a roll in the sand with fellow aspiring actor Madeleine Delavergne at a beach party in the summer of 1974, he admits that he's already less interested in her. Just minutes after that encounter, the pier Edward is standing on collapses, and he's caught in a riptide. He's saved by Guy Margate, an outsider at the party who seems to know Edward and displays a less-than-comforting attitude toward the retching survivor. "That was quite a performance, Ed," Guy sneers.

From then on, he shadows Edward's life like an evil twin (in fact, the men look alike). Bad feelings simmer all around when Madeleine marries Guy but continues to occasionally dally with Edward.

"The Confessions of Edward Day" faultlessly captures the young New York actor's cloistered world of classes, auditions, day jobs and competitive friendships. Edward and Madeleine are more gifted and successful than most; Guy is not. The violent denouement of their triangular relationship during a performance of "Uncle Vanya" is nastily plausible.

Some readers may be frustrated that two participants in this triangle, Madeleine and Guy, remain essentially enigmas, but it couldn't be otherwise with Edward narrating. A lot has changed when we last see him, 20 years after "Vanya," but one fact never changes: Other people are a mystery to him because they're merely supporting players in a drama of which he is always the star. It's a testament to Martin's skill and empathy (a quality Edward entirely lacks) that we don't despise her blinkered protagonist but feel sorry for him, as you would for anyone with an incurable condition.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor of the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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