[25 August 2004]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You may have heard the one about British writer Mil Millington, one of the lucky few to still be stroking the bottle in which dot-com lightning was captured. And to think all he ever did was write a Web site about the things he and his girlfriend threw pots and pans at each other about. Didn’t take much before he found himself with not just a book deal, but a book deal spawned from a bidding war. No joke!
The resulting Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About (2002) was a well-reviewed novel that brought comparisons to Nick Hornby and Dave Barry, and was published in multiple languages like Dutch and German. It was so successful, in fact, that the author found himself working on a movie script based on his debut, one that’s now in development through the UK’s Working Title films. That’s not to mention penning his hastily written follow-up, A Certain Chemistry, which already debuted in the UK and Canada last year.
In Millington’s latest book, we find a 28-year-old English writer named Tom Cartwright falling head over heels for a 30-year-old soap star named Georgina Nye after he’s been hired to ghostwrite her memoirs. If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, I would advise running out and renting a little film called Notting Hill, which was, coincidentally, a Working Title film production. Some American chick named Julia Roberts was in it, along with some dashing British actor caught cheating on his girlfriend with a Hollywood prostitute almost 10 years ago. What was his name again? Oh, it doesn’t matter.
Anyway, I came into reading this book with a bit of worry. Particularly, I was worried that I might not like this book based on its tendency to blaze trails already blazed. So, I got my girlfriend to read this book before I did out of the issue of fairness and, well, scientific research. While this experiment had its risks—we own a cat, so there’s no so-called doghouse to retreat to in these parts—I’m happy to report that we both enthusiastically agreed on something. We agreed that A Certain Chemistry is a real dud, something human beings who actually like to be entertained may want to stay far, far from.
The first problem with this novel is that Millington bookends and occasionally interrupts his story with a director’s commentary on the plot by none other than God himself. This is a rather shaky story-telling device because (if done the wrong way) it can distract the reader and reveal an awful lot about the vanity and ego of the author. But the risk particularly doesn’t pay off in this book because Millington’s God offers wry comments on sexual attraction and hormones that distract from the story (or lack thereof). These pseudo-intellectual interjections are actually God awful and had the effect of slamming the book’s pace right into a brick wall—particularly around page 200, where God goes into a nonsensical ten-page rant about body chemistry that had the girlfriend and I flipping pages forward to get over it.
Second problem? The book is a comedy about infidelity, probably one of the least funny topics on the planet alongside child slavery. (Something Millington would agree about as he says pretty much the same thing on page 387.) Nobody likes reading about a total cad who cheats on his live-in girlfriend so he can indulge on his star fucking fantasies, unless it’s done in such a way that you can laugh at the protagonist. Well, it’s hard to laugh at a guy described on the back cover of the book as “brooding” and “self-loathing.” Henny Youngman, he ain’t. Believe me.
But if that were only the least of this book’s endless problems. For instance, Millington engages in far too much foreplay before getting to the nitty-gritty of the story, to the point where I wanted to put this book down at around page 70. (My girlfriend convinced me to finish it, but only out of the interest of fairness in reviewing.) It takes roughly 170 pages—almost half the book—until anyone actually drops their pants for the purposes of sex, and in rather bizarre circumstances to boot. By that time, most men will be itching for an issue of Penthouse, if only because most of the pages before it really have little consequence on the rest of the book’s plot. (It’s Tom’s infidelity that gets the protags protagging, after all.)
For thereon in, it’s a huge plod as Millington takes his sweet time to get to the plot points we all know are coming: the discovery by Tom’s girlfriend of his unfaithfulness, Tom getting thrown out of the house, Tom’s wheedling and pleading to be taken back. And on it goes. For a book with God as a main character, this book sure could have used God in the editing suite.
Most disturbingly, however, is Millington’s overall hypothesis about human sexuality and how something called monoamines gum up the works. Thus, in A Certain Chemistry, Millington seems to be saying that people will never stop cheating on each other due to chemicals beyond their control. He also claims that 60 per cent of the population engages in cheating, which makes it “normal.” I beg to differ. Priests—who, granted, get a bad rap these days thanks to a few bad pedophiles among the clergy—do take an oath of celibacy. That’s not to speak of the millions and millions of married couples that have gone 50 or 60 years totally committed to each other with nary a problem. All of these people, I hasten to add, are hardly freaks. So what gives? Where is Mil Millington coming from?
God only knows, I guess.
My girl and I can say one positive thing about the book: It does have a rather lovely cover in its US edition, which is probably A Certain Chemistry‘s sole saving grace. To put it another way, I guess it’s the second out of three things that my girlfriend and I didn’t have to argue about. The third being that we’re not really all that interested in seeing the movie based on this novel, assuming anyone actually bothers to green-light it. Considering my girlfriend recently discovered multiple copies of A Certain Chemistry in a bargain bookstore not far from where we live after reading this book—true story—we can now only wonder why anyone might even bother in for the first place.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/certain-chemistry/