Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Book Review: Love on the Big Screen, by William J. Torgerson
by William J. Torgerson
As book bloggers, we get a lot of pitches. A lot. I'll admit, I don't always respond to all of them. I can't; there's way too many. They come from authors themselves, from publicists and publishers ... you name it and they appear.
Such was how Love on the Big Screen came my way. For whatever reason, there was something about the pitch from one Bill Torgerson that I just liked.
"Hi Melissa. I've got my first book out and it's called Love on the Big Screen. The protagonist is a college freshman whose understanding of love has been shaped by late-eighties romantic comedies ...."
Stop right there! (I wanna know right now!) College freshman? Late '80s romantic comedies?
Love on the Big Screen is a light-hearted novel that time-warped me right back to the future of my days as a college student - particularly as I read one scene that takes place in the dining hall of the fictitious Pison College, the novel's setting. It felt like my own group of friends had reunited and were once again eating every single meal together, just as we had every single day of the four years of our glory days. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that Bill Torgerson had tape-recorded conversations from our little group.
That's where Torgerson succeeds with his novel. Love on the Big Screen is embued with all the elements that make the college years of the late 80s and early 90s so nostalgic for me. I mean, I can pretty much tell you what I was also doing on Thursday, December 6, 1990, the day that the opening scene of the novel takes place.
(But I won't, because ... well, that could be my own novel.)
Ahem. Moving on ....
(You will notice that I am actually posting this on December 6. Look at me, having my blogging act together!)
As I was saying. Love on the Big Screen stars a full cast of characters, with the lead actor being one Eric Zaucha, known to all as "Zuke." (We'll get back to the others in a minute.) He's a likeable, sympathetic main character and Torgerson succeeded in making Zuke someone whom we all can relate to (male or female). Because, when you come right down to it, we've all been Zuke. We've all been led on. We've all been on the opposite end of an unrequited love relationship. We've all been pursued by someone we had "just friends" feelings about. We've all had our hearts broken.
Zuke is a student of '80s teen movies and his idol is one Lloyd Dobler - also known to us children of the late '80s as this guy:
Who can forget John Cusack's infamous scene from "Say Anything," the one with Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box (that's the relic that we old fogies in our 40s listened to our cassette tapes and CDs on before Steve Jobs gave us the iPod) blaring Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes"? The image is seared into our man Zuke's brain (and on his dorm room wall) and Lloyd Dobler's relationship with Diane Court is, to Zuke, the epitome of love everlasting as he imagines it to be with one Abby Grant. Zuke is also significantly influenced by the on-again-off-again-on-again courtship of one Harry and one Sally (as well he should be, because THAT movie ROCKS) and the entire library of John Hughes-created films.
Abby seems to be rather smitten with Zuke as well, and the two would be their own perfect pair of cute bookends (get it? A-Z?) if it wasn't for one problem. Abby is dating the Star Basketball Player of Pison College, an individual who goes by the nickname Cheese and who is showered by Kraft Singles during games. Will Abby dump Cheese for Zuke? Will Zuke get his girl? Will Zuke (who is also on the basketball team) ever get a chance to get off the bench and play in a game?
This is the cheesy stuff of '80s romantic comedies and it is a premise (along with the novel's other subplots) that works well in this novel ... except in this case, the trip down Memory Lane has a few potholes along the way in the form of significant distractions to the reader.
For starters, Love on the Big Screen is an incredibly wordy novel, one with several typos. While reading it, I had to fight the urge to get out my red pen. Many sentences seemed heavy with extraneous words, and that slowed down my reading to the point where it became noticeable to me. That shouldn't happen. There were also several inconsistencies - sometimes at pivotal events in the plot - where the action would suddenly, abruptly shift to a description of a relationship several years earlier or something that happened in Zuke's high school years. This happens AS EARLY AS PAGE 2, providing the reader with the same effect as kissing someone when they suddenly call you by the wrong name.
(Not, you know, that I would know anything about THAT.)
Another significant distraction came with Torgerson's penchant of giving nicknames to almost every character. There are a number of characters in this novel, and it's a bit hard to keep track of who's who. Throw in a nickname for each one of these people, and you find yourself needing a spreadsheet to keep track. I recognize that this bestowing of monikers is probably typical of college students and was probably included to give an air of authenticity and authority of one's characters, but I think that could have been (needed to have been) sacrificed, at least somewhat, for a better reader experience. Not every character needed a nickname.
There are other aspects of the novel that validated the college experience and the timeframe itself. (I loved the references to Saddam Hussein - remember, on December 6, 1990 we were just weeks away from Operation Desert Storm - and yeah, there was a time when gas really was $1.53 a gallon.)
To me, being a somewhat picky reader, these issues (the need for another round - at least - of edits; the distractions with the names; the somewhat choppy-at-times narrative) were hard to overlook. They obscured for me the essence of this novel. Perhaps I am being particularly critical here because Torgerson is a writing professor and I expected ...well, something more robust in terms of the writing.
That being said, Torgerson does have a sharp eye and ear for all the elements that comprise the collegiate world. He nails this once in a lifetime experience exceptionally well, particularly through his dialogue which seemed authentic to me. (Word to the wise, however: there are more than quite a few over-the-top crude and graphic phrases included, which I didn't think were entirely necessary.) Zuke's character was well-done and others had the potential to be stronger than they were - just as the novel itself.
I had a hard time rating this on Goodreads. Initially, I had this as ** ("I didn't like it") but decided that wasn't fair because there were elements I very much liked and LOLed at. I changed my Goodreads rating to be a *** ("I liked it.")
Updated 12/7/2011 to add: Many a writer might have taken umbrage at this review. Bill Torgerson, however, sent me a gracious email saying that he understood all the criticisms I made above - and is still planning to "share the review as much as I can online." That shows what a class act Bill Torgerson is, and I hope the parts of the novel that I enjoyed were reflected well enough and came through as much as I hoped in this review. Bill is also someone who is a true friend of the book blogging community, appreciates what we do, and GETS it. Thanks, Bill ... and I look forward to reading your next novel.
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