Both The Hot Guy and Girl in Between, by authors experienced in writing for film and television, could be categorised as similarly themed chick lit. Their protagonists are funny, bawdy, 30-something women dedicated to finding ‘‘the one’’. Yet between them, these novels prove this form of genre fiction is a broad category.
The Hot Guy, by film critics Mel Campbell and Anthony Morris, is rom-com 101 and sited firmly in the screwball film comedy tradition of the 1930s and 40s.
Adam, the eponymous hot guy of the title, is an earnest and unwittingly handsome movie nerd trying to raise finance to direct his next short film — a work that delves unpretentiously into the “dark side”. Provisionally titled Metadata, it’s about “the essential asymmetry of the panopticon”.
Adam works at a multiplex cinema with his two sidekicks: Steve, a wannabe actor, and Renton, a film reviewer for blog BackedUpToilet. Just three nerds in a kiosk, riffing wittily on movies and girls, and making choc tops.
Cate is a self-identified “funny lady” and publicity director for a sports stadium, despite hating sport.
“Cate’s sense of humour … first disrupted her love life at the age of 12”, and now she has been dumped by her uptight boyfriend over a joke. Dejected and lost, she debriefs with her own sidekicks, Vanessa and Kirsty, while hanging out at their kite flyer and drone club.
There’s some nice fast talk in these scenes: swipes at vampires, zombies, cat videos, a particularly sharp jab at the current trend for all things “bespoke” and, of course, plenty of no-holds-barred boy talk. Think Bridesmaids. Egged on (and set up) by her friends, Cate picks up Adam at a bar — there’s a lot of alcohol-saturated prose in both of these books — for a no-strings-attached one-night-stand: to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Trouble is, they actually like each other.
So far, so genre.
But Adam isn’t just any hot guy, he’s The Hot Guy, unassuming and drop-dead gorgeous. In fact, so gorgeous there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the ambition of a “night-with-Adam” — given that a night with this guy will allegedly cure whatever ails you — set up by Adam-obsessed women of the disturbingly named League of Icarus.
So when serial one-nighter, looking-for-the-gal-who’ll-be-there-in-the-morning Adam makes out with serial picker-of-wrong-guys Cate, assumptions and vested interests abound.
All of this makes for some entertaining and over-the-top set-ups: a farcical hostage situation involving The League, followed by a road trip to Adam’s home town of Ladbroke — where the statue of the Unknown Soldier is of course modelled on gorgeous Adam — for the premiere of Metadata at the town’s inaugural film festival.
Characters such as Adam’s recalcitrant but gratis director of photography are drawn in brisk and vivid strokes — “grizzled, inebriated druid shambling” — and some of the best writing is in the three-way schtick on sex and celluloid between the blokes at work, although it does feel like the authors are having just a bit too much fun competing for best bad film titles.
Girl in Between, Anna Daniels’s first novel, was shortlisted for last year’s The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award. It’s the story of Lucy, who, at 32, low on love, luck and life, is suffering an extended mid-youth crisis. She’s chucked in her TV producing job in Melbourne and come home to Rockhampton (aka Rocky, Beef Capital of Australia), moving back in with her parents to finish writing her book, Diamonds in the Dust, and generally sort out her life.
Mum is an African-drumming Cher acolyte who spends an inordinate amount of time poring over handy home hints catalogues with Lucy’s zany bestie, Rosie. Dad goes to the jockey club every other night, or so Lucy believes. In truth he’s battling the black dog and hanging out at the Men’s Shed.
Daniels, herself a kind of latter-day Bridget Jones, hails from Rockhampton and is a writer and producer known for her funny, quirky TV segments. How Not to Interview Russell Crowe, an edit of her potentially disastrous encounter with the notoriously volatile actor, is pure Bridget, and won the ABC Comedy Segment of the Year in 2004. The sketch is reworked in Girl in Between as an interview with a fading 80s rock star.
In Lucy, the author has created a heroine not far removed, seemingly, from herself. But the lightness and short-segment appeal of her earlier work does not quite translate here, where lots of heart-thumping, body-trembling, blood-boiling, stomach-lurching, pulse-racing cliches choke a narrative already weighed down with signposts as subtle as a Mallee bull. Nods to more serious issues — Mum’s cancer, Dad’s depression — feel tokenistic.
Aussie idioms and vernacular keep both novels tonally consistent, homegrown and comfy, maybe even a touch exotic, if you’re not a local. In Daniels’s novel we know we’re in Australia because we’re told we are, often, not because we recognise it.
Rocky might feel like “a pair of Ugg boots — super comfortable, sturdy and secure”, but Porpoise Spit it ain’t.
What’s striking is the extent to which lists and labels (books, film titles) stand in for description or observation. Red Rooster, UDLs, KFC, Maccas and Subway are listed like product placements, standing in for character as if anything, anyone, can now be reduced to the brands they consume. It’s a shorthand, but a lazy one.
While both books are unapologetically populist and formulaic genre fiction and Girl in Between does contain some funny deft writing, it lacks sufficient irony or self-reflection to do more than simply fulfil the cliches.
The Hot Guy — written with relish and self-awareness, the authors’ playfulness with the genre smart, not smart-arsed, more homage than piss-take — fulfils the brief more successfully.
Elly Varrenti is a writer, broadcaster and critic. She teaches in the creative writing department at the University of Melbourne.