Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame by Alan McMonagle

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A daringly bold and funny novel, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame is a colourful portrayal of grief, mental illness, and dysfunctional families. Laura plays her part of the “leading lady” wonderfully, a hugely likeable and muddled character, who has ambitious dreams. McMonagle encourages us to see past her – and the other characters’ – mental health problems, instead highlighting Laura’s distinctive personality and her all-consuming passions. The novel is also a look into the beautiful nature of dysfunctional families, and how one tragic event can shape the family dynamic.

While McMonagle’s quirky portrayal of Laura makes it clear that she views her world differently from her peers, Laura’s mental health is not really explicitly discussed, especially not by her. Instead, McMonagle makes this part of her character a background attribute, giving space instead to her passionate nature and fantastic wit. Laura is smart, funny, and full of aspiration. She oozes confidence in a way that most of us can only dream of, and while it is clear that much of this ‘delusion’ is a result of her troubled mind, we instead welcome and embrace this ‘symptom’ of her condition. In the novel, it drives her character to undertake bold actions, her humorous personality on full display. We get to see Laura beyond her problems, instead getting to know her quirks while her mental health background is teased throughout the novel. This a refreshing portrayal of the typical ‘troubled young woman’, and McMonagle has done a great job of forming a realistic and likeable character. While we don’t always condone Laura’s actions, especially towards the latter sections of the novel where her mind seems to unravel, we sympathise wholeheartedly with her desire to achieve and make the best for herself, despite her restrictions.

One way that McMonagle moves away from this typical representation of this type of character, is the motif and importance of films within the novel. For Laura, this connection between classic movies and her father is obvious from the start, and the way she discusses her favourite actors and scenes are the sections where we truly feel her come alive. Laura’s desire to play someone and walk in the footsteps of these Hollywood greats is reflective of her everyday task of playing a functioning woman in her mid-twenties. Still living at home with an overbearing mother, and having the success of her sister to be constantly compared to, the reader can understand why for her, movies act as some form of escapism. They are a retreat from her seemingly stagnant surroundings, her fast-paced mind, and the pressures to conform to society. McMonagle has Laura latch onto to the clichéd concept of making it big, using Hollywood as a direct anchor for this notion, yet in this novel it entirely works. The idea is simple, yet it provides the backing for so many moving parts within the book. By having something simplistic and concrete to grasp onto, Laura’s personality is allowed to truly shine, her drive to achieve her aspirations fuelling her comical actions.

McMonagle also highlights the different ways that individuals process grief. The tragic passing of her father acts as an overriding backdrop for many of the characters’ life choices; Laura is determined to follow in his acting footsteps, Jennifer responds by leaving the country for many years and becoming elusive, and (in Laura’s eyes) their mother seeks to fill the void of the relationship with a new partner. Each character has their own form of escapism, their way of drifting away from one another in order to cope with what they have been through. During the novel, this family dynamic is temporarily reconciled with the return of Jennifer, however it is a bumpy and troubled path. Laura is weary of her sister’s return, especially initially, however there are some profoundly sweet moments throughout the book where we see Laura act as a caregiver, and attempt to overcome any ill-feelings. Adding Little Juan into the mix, this sweet-natured child who is placed in the middle of this whirlwind, grounds the characters within many scenes. Indeed, the sections where Laura appears most at ease and ‘adult’ are when she is interacting with him, highlighting her caring personality and adding another layer to the family dynamic. McMonagle’s portrayal of this messy yet loving family was comforting to read, and showed that there is beauty to be found in the imperfections of people.

Laura’s changing relationship with her sister is particular interesting, and something that is handled with care within the novel. Before her arrival, she acts as this kind of angelical figure to Laura, which she despises. However, once Jennifer’s presence is included, it’s obvious that she exhibits her own problems and vulnerability, and her perceived perfections are largely exaggerated. It was interesting to see how Laura’s perception of her sister altered as she uncovered more about the life Jennifer has been living away from her and her mother, all these years. We still feel Laura’s hurt and frustrations that she was deserted by her sister, but we also begin to sympathise with Jennifer and understand why she made these decisions – travel is form of escape, and literally distancing herself from her hometown allowed her to grieve. While Laura doesn’t explicitly change her mind, her actions reflect this; she cares for Little Juan, and begins to accept her sister’s offers of rekindling a relationship.

The novels poignant and satisfying finale rounds off this heart-warming and funny novel. McMonagle, through his concise storytelling abilities and experimentation with form (the interjection of fake letters and the celebrity biographies) has produced an enjoyable book, complete with a relatable leading lady and many layers of meaning. The book shows us that there is more to life in the little things, analyses the different forms of escapism, and highlights the importance of togetherness.

Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame is published by Picador and is available here.

Alan McMonagle

Alan McMonagle has written for radio, published two collections of short stories: Liar, Liar and Psychotic Episodes – both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award – and contributed stories to many journals in Ireland and North America. He lives in Galway. His debut novel, Ithaca, was published in 2017.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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