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Publication date: November 2018
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No-one is a bigger fan of actor Thomas Cassidy than Libby. No-one. That's why she's totally going to marry him

She is going to write a novel, name the main character after Thom, and find a way to get it to him. Intrigued and flattered, he will read it, fall in love with her prose, write to her and ask to turn it into a movie. She will pretend to think about it for a week or so, then say, sure, but can I work on it with you? Their eyes will meet over the script, and fade to black. It is a fail-proof plan.

Except for the fact that he is a Hollywood star – not A list, perhaps not B list, but certainly C+ – and she is, well, not. Except for the fact that he lives in America. Except, too, for the teeny tiny age gap. Not even twenty years! Totally overcomable. All of the obstacles are totally overcomable. It's all about determination.

Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA, but actually, let's be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. (Like her main character Libby, she knows a thing or two about celebrity crushes and the life-changing power of a television series.) She was recently longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, and her journalism, poetry, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Bustle, Book Riot, Writers' Forum, and the Washington Post. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show about news and views from British books and publishing.

 

Social media:

 

Twitter: @clairelymam
Instagram: @britlitpodcast

On the cover she is hand in hand with him, the two of them shadows against the sunrise. Thom picks up the book, turns it over and over, reads the words on the inside flap. Nothing about him. Of course nothing about him. This is not a book about him. It’s a book about Ebba, and he was a mere parenthesis in her life before she dumped him and moved on to the handsome man on the cover. He knows this. He has always known this.

“Excuse me?”

He looks up from the book, from the page he has turned to and begun to read there in the memoir aisle. He has done this enough times to know to smile as he looks up.

“Yes?”

The girl can’t quite meet his gaze. She’s late teens, early twenties at most, and she fiddles with her necklace. “You’re not who I think you are, are you?”

“I guess that would depend on who you think I am.”

“Well. Um. It’s just. Um.” 

Her friend rolls her eyes and steps in to rescue her from the awkwardness. Steps in quite literally, that is, shoving the other girl forward a little, more directly into his line of sight. “She thinks you look like Thomas Cassidy, and she’s a big fan of his, so.”

“Oh,” he says. He is tempted to play a game of some kind – yeah, I get that a lot – but the girl is so sweet. So nervous. This is probably a big moment for her, bigger than he can appreciate. “Then yes. Guilty as charged.”

“Can she get a picture with you?”

She shuffles in and he puts his arm around her, careful as always where he puts his hand.

“Thank you,” she says, and that’s all she says. Later, he thinks, she will kick herself for not having a hundred things ready to say, prepared for just such a moment. They’re in Pasadena, after all. A stone’s throw from LA. She probably even knows he lives here. She might have been lurking with just this intention, bumping into him. And she had nothing to say. She will be mortified.

He tries always to be gracious. To remember he is where he is, living this improbably charmed life, because his fans put him there. But sometimes, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes he just wants to be able to browse his favourite bookstore and not worry about hearing that voice behind him, those whispers. “Is that Thomas Cassidy? I think that’s Thomas Cassidy. From that show, you know? The one from the early 2000s about the school in New York? He was the visionary English teacher all the girls had crushes on?”

“Oh, right, right,” the other person tends to mumble, unconvincingly. “I remember you liked that show.”

In his moments of greatest self-awareness, Thom wonders if that is really what pains him, this half-fame, this has-been fame, this maybe-one-day-again fame. He wonders if he would, in fact, prefer a life where he couldn’t go to bookstores at all because everyone, but everyone, knows him, is eager to take pictures of him in unguarded moments and plaster them all over Instagram. There would be few of these unguarded moments, these moments without makeup, and this would make them all the more precious, all the more Instagrammable. (What? You thought only women wore makeup on TV?)

It was big, his show. Its inexplicable cancellation is still mourned in some quarters. It is the kind of show that appears regularly in lists of “Top Ten Best Written Series” or “Best Romantic Pairings” or “Most Inspirational Moments on TV”. More than a few young teachers, even these days, quote lines from it in job interviews – he knows this because they write and tell him – half-hoping the lines won’t be recognised as borrowed, and half-hoping their interviewer will smile and say, “Season two, episode one, right? That character was my favourite too”.

People said that a show about teachers would never work. No-one would care about the internal politics or the debates about the importance of phonics rather than the whole-word approach among students reading below grade level. Only it turned out that when you wrote something well enough and treated the audience like they were actually intelligent, when you tapped into their ideals of what education was, what it could be, what it could do for people, for the country, for the world, when you appealed to their better natures, people did care very much. Office workers discussed phonics at the water cooler. Real-life teachers wrote blogs analysing the pedagogical issues in the latest episode. Even some of the fan fiction rose to this level, though most of it – it has to be said – centred on Thom’s character’s will-they-won’t-they relationship or non-relationship (or whatever it was) with a beautiful blonde colleague. Seven seasons they drew it out for. Thom is proud of the chemistry they had. 

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