Carole Bellacera is an author I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Her first three novels met with a great deal of acclaim, including positive reviews from several of my AAR colleagues. I can only assume Understudy was the wrong place to start and that her earlier books were better than this slick, shallow soap opera.
As the book opens, a young woman is brought into a hospital emergency room following a devastating car accident. Former congressman Mike Mulcahey and his wife Tammy are informed that their daughter Robin was traveling with her best friend Amy when the accident occurred. Amy was killed instantly, and Robin’s face was badly injured and will require major reconstructive surgery. But when they go to visit their daughter, the girl in the bed can only wonder why they’re calling her Robin when she’s really Amy.
The first chapter moves back a year and a half earlier to August of 1996, when William & Mary freshmen Robin Mulcahey and Amy Shiley meet for the first time. The two roommates appear to have nothing in common. Amy is a quiet girl from a poor background who plans to study archaeology. As a theater major, the wealthy Robin is more exuberant and outgoing, but her open promiscuity is only an act hiding a terrible secret. The two become best friends, and Amy soon accompanies Robin home on trips to her family estate, becoming part of the family herself. She also meets Robin’s older brother Paul, a football star at the University of Colorado, and falls in love at first sight with him.
Amy and Paul eventually get involved with one another, but when the relationship ends badly, Amy finds herself at a bar with Robin, trying to drown her sorrows. With Robin too drunk to drive them home, Amy takes the wheel. She’s wearing Robin’s coat with Robin’s wallet in her pocket, and Robin is wearing her bracelet, so when the accident occurs, it’s understandable (but contrived) that Amy is misidentified as Robin. Any inclination she might have had to clear up the misunderstanding disappears when Paul arrives at her bedside with another woman and Amy decides she’d rather be Robin after all.
Plastic surgery gives Amy Robin’s face and soon she’s living Robin’s dream of being a professional actress. She falls in love with Declan Blair, the Irish actor who becomes her onscreen love interest on the soap opera she stars on, and marries him. She does love him, but she also still loves Paul, her “brother,” and no one knows who she really is.
Understudy is well-written and easily digested, but a number of weaknesses keep it from being a satisfying read. Weak is a good way to describe Amy, a one-note sad sack with a serious case of the “poor me’s.” Her parents were alcoholics who never had the drive to get themselves out of the trailer park. Her father finally killed himself, and her mother was diagnosed with cancer. When her mother was moved to a government care facility, Amy was shuffled off to the foster care system. Now her new friend has pulled her into a world that’s totally foreign to a poor girl from the trailer park. Amy has no dimension, however; she’s defined by her sad past, her sense of inferiority, and her obsession with Paul. I love cheering on the underdog and I love “poor kid makes good” stories, but there’s no character here to cheer for.
Amy is even more dull compared with Robin, a complex character whose motivations and hurts are nowhere near as one-dimensional as Amy’s. Robin is a tragic, complicated character. Amy is a drip. While Robin’s death is genuinely sad, I couldn’t help thinking how much better this book would have been if Robin had been the understudy. She would have had a much better motivation to want to take over Amy’s identity if she’d survived. A story where she escapes her family under the guise of her new face, yet ultimately is forced to confront the pain in her past, would have been a far more dramatically rich, compelling read than the shallow melodrama of Amy’s experiences.
It would also help if the love interest so many of Amy’s choices are based upon weren’t a complete moron. Bellacera doesn’t do athletes any favors in fighting the dumb jock stereotype, because Paul is dumb as a stump. The author makes the usual misstep of giving him a plot device-er, “alternate love interest,” who is such a cartoonishly stereotypical ice princess the reader is left wondering how many functioning brain cells he has if he can’t see how horrible she is. She’s the kind of woman who can’t understand why she would have to ask the Mulcahey’s beloved cook/housekeeper/part of the family if she can use the kitchen; after all, the woman is only “the help.” She refuses to let Paul eat meat, including turkey on Thanksgiving, and sneers at anyone who does. She makes rude comments about how “Robin” must be disappointed that she’s only on a soap when all the real actors want to be in movies. She cheats on her terminally ill husband. The moment that finally convinces Paul that she’s a terrible person (after knowing her for almost a decade) is a good indication of how clueless he is. He’s oblivious to her cruelty and rudeness toward his family and friends right in front of his face, but a stranger? Well, that’s going too far.
Though the book is dominated by the relationship between Amy and Paul, it is Women’s Fiction, albeit more Lifetime Movie of the Week than anything else, with its melodrama that combines salacious elements such as incest and secret homosexuality – and plenty of glitz and glamour to satisfy those readers who may be tiring of Danielle Steel. And while the author gets all the pop culture references right for the times she’s describing, it rings false nonetheless because the story is told in an older voice than her characters.
The most astonishing part of the book is the two words that begin Chapter 18: Spring 2004. I stared at those words in disbelief for several minutes. The author completely skips over the most potentially interesting part of this story! Chapter 17 ends in 1999, with Amy early in her masquerade, still fitting into her new role as “Robin.” Turn the page, it’s 2004, and she’s a successful actress playing a scheming vixen on a soap opera. How did the shy girl who’d never dreamed of being an actress, the perpetually nervous and self-effacing girl who never seemed to come out of her shell unless Robin was around, transform herself into an incredible actress capable of winning two Daytime Emmys? Who knows? That’s not the story the author is interested in telling. Those years are glossed over in an interview Amy gives to a magazine, while the reader is given more of this weak victim mooning after a thick-headed lunk.
Understudy isn’t a bad read so much as a very disappointing one. The characters are generic and stereotypical (alcoholic trailer park residents? cold-blooded rich women?), and the story’s soap opera-ish underpinnings juxtaposed with Amy’s career as an actress on a soap opera is ironic in an unintended way. In the end I spent too much time missing Robin, whose desperation and innate sadness made her the only character whose problems didn’t seem skin deep, and wishing I didn’t have to read about her understudy.