The Time Is Now, Monica Sparrow
Journeyman author Matt Howard pops up with his fourth novel in 13 years, and with his fourth publisher. Given the commercial appeal of his work, this bedhopping seems odd, but such is the climate of publishing these days. Hit it out of the park with your first swing, or move house.
Ironically, then, it continues Howard’s narrative interest in the vagaries of the publishing world, which claimed centre stage in his 2006 debut, Street Furniture, and briefly appeared in his sophomore novel, Taking Off. The Time Is Now, Monica Sparrow offers his best title thus far and the most appealing story. Monica is a hoarder and self-published romance writer in London, approached by highfalutin literary publisher Wyatt Dean to snap up her latest, potentially money-spinning title. She is assigned minimalist editor Xavier. A romance/friendship of sorts ensues between the two, who find each other’s worlds compelling, if terrifying.
Throw in a backstory involving a dead brother, an alpha-bitch sister, a social misfit artist stepbrother and a couple of mangy dogs, and all the elements are in place for a nice, safe, middle-class story of love, loss and redemption, as one of the publicists at Wyatt Dean might say. These promiscuous young women are named Cinnamon and Kitten, incidentally, which is a little on the nose.
Howard is clearly torn between his desire to viciously satirise the industry – an impulse he occasionally indulges – and sticking to a tried and tested formula. His misgivings about the book industry are writ large throughout the narrative. This may be a problem for some. Stories with authors as protagonists, especially set amid the publishing milieu, tend to give me pause, not for fear of finding insult – there are plenty of painfully recognisable archetypes – but because I can’t help thinking readers won’t care about this insular, unexciting workplace. Later on, mean sister Diane remembers her mother saying, “You know how uninterested you are in most people’s dramas? That’s how most people feel about yours.”
Still, Howard’s latest zips along like a more measured version of The Rosie Project, minus the mental health issues and broad comedy. Had a major house published it, one suspects the elements of satire would have been stripped out in order to aim purely for the commercial market. As it stands, Howard – an engaging, underrated writer – continues to awkwardly straddle both camps.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Matt Howard, The Time Is Now, Monica Sparrow ". Subscribe here.