I picked up a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley, but really the suggestion came from Bethany at Subtle Melodrama, who said it was nice to read something a little light when most books are so heavy. And having recently read books about World War II spies, Sudanese civil war, and the blood and gore that is George R.R. Martin, something light sounded pretty damn good.
In some ways, Charlotte Street is the London version of Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell. By that I mean it’s sort of a rom-com, or at least it’s what you wish passed for a rom-com these days. In a direct comparison, I think Attachments has a leg up on Charlotte Street but both were fun reads. I’ll explain.
Jason Priestley (not the actor, as he has to constantly tell people) is a near-30 freelance reviewer for a local free paper in London. Despite having a very cool job, he’s floundering, professionally and personally. He finds out from Facebook that his ex is engaged and that sends him into a tailspin. Until he helps a girl into a cab one night on Charlotte Street and becomes obsessed with finding her again.
The mystery girl drops a disposable camera with 12 photos as she gets into the cab. Priestley tries to find her to give it back, until his friend Dev talks him into developing the photos instead.
I’m going to start with what I didn’t love about this book. The main character is kind of an ass. Not in a stalkerish way like it suggests on the cover; that didn’t bother me. No, he’s just selfish and annoyingly passive most of the time. And here’s where my comparison to Attachments ends. Attachments had Lincoln, one of the most endearing male characters I’ve read in a modern rom-com type story. Jason is insensitive to his friends and co-workers, and completely unethical at work. For example, he posts reviews that are overly negative because that gets him more attention as a writer — but those reviews actually hurt people’s businesses. It doesn’t bother him, but as a reviewer, it bothered me.
One more thing: I think I was supposed to like the ex, but I hated her. If there’s one person in this book that’s stalkerish, it’s her. On the other hand I loved Jason’s friends Dev and Matthew.
What I liked about the book: Wallace keeps the plot interesting and fairly original. It’s cleverly written and the side characters (most of them) are really the entertaining ones. There’s also a level of detail in the writing that brought this book to life. For example, Dev owns a used game shop and he’s a gaming expert. Jason writes reviews and we get to see the ups and downs of the life of a reviewer, and we also learn a lot about his life as a teacher. And I love all things British, so to be honest, just reading about the guys going to get a pint or kebabs after work makes me happy (even though we have those in the U.S. too).
An example of what makes this book engaging comes when Jason takes out an “I Saw You” ad in his paper. Those are the personal ads (in big city papers, at least) where people hope to contact someone they ran into and liked but didn’t have the nerve to actually say something. When I first moved to DC, I was semi-obsessed with the “I Saw You” ads. It’s a fantasy – we want to think that momentary bump into someone cute on the Metro actually meant something. We want to think that somewhere, someone made eye contact with us for a minute and really liked what they saw. Of course the bigger fantasy is thinking that person might actually read your ad among the thousands of other ads, recognize themselves in it, and actually want to contact you. Still, it could happen, right?
No eyes meet across a crowded room, no two people think precisely the same thing, and if only one person actually has that moment, is it even really a moment at all?
We know this, so we say nothing. We avert our eyes, or pretend to be looking for change, we hope the other person will take the initiative, because we don’t want to risk losing this feeling of excitement and possibilities and lust. It’s too perfect. That little second of hope is worth something, possibly forever, as we lie on our deathbeds, surrounded by our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren, and we can’t help but quickly give one last selfish, dying thought to what could have happened if we’d actually said hello to that girl in the Uggs selling CDs outside Nando’s seventy-four years earlier.
In my opinion Wallace hits this dead on. The “I Saw You” ad is like a microcosm of all our hopes, insecurities and desires, all wrapped up in 28-words. And this is the kind of detail I appreciated in this book.
So in the end I have to give this a mixed review. Points given for cleverness, creativity and a fun story, and points taken for an annoying main character and some fairly obvious lessons (like valuing the friends around you more than some girl you saw in the street one day).