‘Love, Unscripted’ is a rom-com homage, but transcends the genre

Owen Nicholls’ debut novel is chock-full of movie references, but he delves deeply into the intricacies of maintaining a relationship.  

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Love, Unscripted” by Owen Nicholls, Ballantine, 352 pp.

If only life were more like the movies – the witty dialogue, the romance, all the conflict wrapped up and resolved in a couple hours. But it’s not. No one comes to understand this better than Nick, the character at the center of Owen Nicholls’ debut novel, “Love, Unscripted.”

A movie theater projectionist, Nick falls in love with Ellie. The two meet at a 2008 election night party where everyone has gathered to watch the returns as they wait to see if Obama will claim the victory. Against this backdrop of suspense and hope, Nick wonders if Ellie could really be interested in him? Might they be a thing? 

In fresh, clever prose – and with an abundance of film references – Nicholls unwinds the four years of Nick and Ellie’s relationship. Nick looks back upon the blissful highs and crushing lows as he resigns himself to a reflective postmortem. As he tries to understand how it all went wrong, he draws upon those film classics that he has pored over each day at the job that he loves. But his experience as the leading man doesn’t bear much resemblance to what he has ever seen from Humphrey Bogart or even Billy Crystal. Life, after all, isn’t a romantic comedy.

Reaching beyond the genre, the book is also a coming-of-age story. Though Nick resists full-fledged adulthood, he is left with little choice as his life crashes down around him. When he and Ellie split, he needs to find a new place to live at a time when rents seem prohibitively high. With the rapid advances of digital media, unemployment looms since theaters no longer need projectionists, no matter how skilled they are at splicing films. And when Nick tries to crawl back home to his parents in a last-ditch effort to stave off grownup responsibilities, they surprise him with the news that they are selling the family house and taking off on their own adventures. Empty nesters, they can barely contain their excitement. Once again, this isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

His predicament leaves Nick with little choice but to pause, turn inward and search out the answers to life’s challenges or at least his next few steps. Just maybe, some of the responsibility for everything that has happened lies with him. Achieving adulthood can be tough, but Nick has the resources. And as the author draws the book to its conclusion, he doesn’t fully resolve the plot but he does bring it to a satisfying end – because sometimes life doesn’t have easy answers or tidy resolutions proving once again, this isn’t the movies.

“Love, Unscripted” is an enjoyable, lighthearted read, not unlike a matinee. Nichol’s talent as a writer plays out in witty word choices – who among us can’t identify with a necessary but painfully early morning airport run described as something scheduled for “stupid o’clock”? – and of-the-minute cultural references such as travel playlists and Facebook photos. Nick marks the impressive (sic) length of his relationship with Ellie with a Polaroid photo – all the way back to before they took selfies. Woven throughout are the movie references such as when Nick thinks back over their shared experiences and his memories play out as scenes from classic films – references which Nicholls provides in detail.

While the book is often as lighthearted as a Billy Crystal/Meg Ryan romance, that doesn’t mean it lacks substance. Nicholls aptly describes the familiar struggle to grow up and the resistance that impels many to look everywhere but within, the only place they’ll find real answers to life’s challenges.

Also of particular note is Nicholl’s character development, especially his portrayal of women. This might be Nick’s story but Ellie is no romantic foil. Her purpose is not to decorate Nick’s efforts as he makes his final reach towards functioning as a real grownup. She stands as her own person, a fully formed character. Aware of the path that lies before her, she makes her own decisions with a poise and generosity that extends to Nick as well. This might be the most meaningful way the book departs from the film classics and it is a difference to be celebrated.

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