#RivetingReviews: Ewa Sherman reviews SECOND BEST by David Foenkinos

What if your life didn’t go the way you’d hoped? What if your greatest chance of recognition, fame and fortune turned into a painful memory that wouldn’t stop stalking you? What if you became overwhelmed by obsessive thoughts that someone else had stolen your life; the future you truly deserved? 

In Second Best, the onslaught of emotions that can follow a huge disappointment seem to take possession of Martin Hill, the boy who came so close to breaking away from his quiet and apparently insignificant existence and into global stardom when he was almost chosen to play Harry Potter in the world-famous film franchise. Yet the ‘failure’ that haunts Martin is a slippery concept. In fact, his being pipped to the role was simply bad luck. Someone else made a decision based on a set of specific requirements, the stars didn’t quite align, and he didn’t win the most coveted film role of the day. Sadly, devasted Martin can’t bring himself to accept that in the grandest scheme of things, he isn’t a loser; that despite his vulnerability and physical likeness to the boy wizard and his burning desire to play Harry Potter, despite his conviction on reading the story that ‘Every word was proof that this book was about him’, fated couldn’t be persuaded pick him. ‘Fate is always thought to be a positive force, propelling us towards a magical future’, the narrator observes. ‘Surprisingly, its negative side is very rarely mentioned.’

And so begins the tough process of adjusting to life after not being chosen by the Gods of Cinema. In 1999, when the story begins, Martin is an ordinary ten-year-old, crazy about Arsenal, with a minor crush on a girl called Betty, living with his dad John (who ‘dreamed of being an inventor, but he had no real ideas’) in London while shuttling to Paris at weekends to be with his mum Jeanne, a political journalist. As viewers, we might not have the inside track on what really drives the casting and mechanics of a major film production. However, we can try to imagine certain elements, and that’s exactly what David Foenkinos has done. By weaving a fictional character from imagined facts, the French novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director, who studied music and literature in Paris, has created an original and heartfelt novel full of questions, emotions and tenderness. 

Despite Martin’s tender age in the book when a chance meeting with Hollywood-versed British producer David Heyman sets him on the path to his unfulfilled dream, he recognises that ‘one of the ways of being happy [is] to change your perception of reality’. Yet in practice, this proves quite impossible to do. Over his teenage and adult years, personal trauma and hiding away from the world become Martin’s constant companions. Love, medication, book-induced ‘shock therapy’ and practical suggestions are of no help: ‘Human life can perhaps be summarised as a constant trial through disillusionment, which culminates in a successful, or unsuccessful, way of managing pain,’ the narrator soberly concludes.

Like a modern diary, what’s so enjoyable and relevant about Second Best is the clever mixture of fact and fiction, and the stories of the real people involved in the Harry Potter universe. Naturally, J. K. Rowling features prominently, with the book retracing her backstory and gradual path to conquering the world. Daniel Radcliffe also makes an appearance, and even the stuntman David Holmes is mentioned. (On a side note, a couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary about David, a talented sportsman who at the age of twenty-five became paralysed during an accident while rehearing a dangerous flying scene. ‘What if?’ isn’t just for fiction.) 

Megan Jones’s sensitive translation conveys all the sadness, suffering and sense of wonder that surround the Harry Potter phenomenon and the times shaped by it. Somehow, Martin must survive through seven books, eight films, frenzied fandom and never-ending media coverage, not to mention his own disillusionment. Along the way, we get to share in his sorrow and tiny triumphs, while enjoying sparkles of humour, empathy and fantastic observations about British and French culture and way of life. 

Reviewed by Ewa Sherman


Written by David Foenkinos

Translated by Megan Jones 

Published by Gallic books (2023)

June 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

Ewa Sherman is a writer, translator and critic. She studied Polish Literature and Language, and Law, and worked with the Polish media. She’s translated several books of sonnets written by her mother Krystyna Konecka from Polish to English.

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