People who dismiss the idea of literature, both modern and classic, tend to view it as variants on a single story: a middle-aged man grappling with the perceived failures of his life seeks solace in the arms of a much younger woman. This is often further reduced to a professor and student dynamic. In Stay Up With Hugo Best, Erin Somers flips the script with the concept “what if that alleged classic literary had its script flipped: the exact same story from the perspective of the woman”. The thing is that it’s exactly the same. A woman ineffectually tries to save a boring but overly wealthy man from himself. Without finesse or an actual point of difference, Stay Up With Hugo Best doesn’t work.
After the cancellation of late night show Stay Up With Hugo Best, June Bloom is unemployed. Almost immediately after the taping of the final programme, June runs into Hugo Best himself, who invites her to spend the Memorial Day weekend at his Connecticut home. Despite being frequently out of her depth and constantly insulted, June sticks it out for all four days.
And the reader is left asking why. This is promoted as a novel for the #MeToo era — an unfortunate sobriquet that is bound to be applied to practically any book about a professional woman, regardless of its actual content — but June is a passive character who only lacks agency because she doesn’t allow it in herself. Somers is even careful to place Best’s proposition directly after he holds any power over June and, if anything, the man himself almost entirely lacks even platonic interest in his house guest. They’re two free-floating agents whose lives feel as if they barely intersect through their ostensible 72 hours together.
Stay Up With Hugo Best also has strange ideas: June is several times left alone with Best’s 17 year old son, with the implication that she will succumb to his clumsy seductions, and her toying with the idea of doing so. Apart from the knowledge that if a book was about a 29 year old narrator even so much as glancing at a 17 year old school girl the author would be run off the internet on a rail — and not collecting a slew of awards anymore, either — it’s just … not on. At that age you should be not only strong enough to resist the temptation of a teen, but also capable of completely rebuffing them. Again, Somers is not overly interested in power differentials and no one ever pressures Erin; she is just too inert to bother challenging anything or going anywhere.
As a character, Hugo Best is that awkward amalgam of several real people without being a near a real one himself. He has Jay Leno’s car collection, and a brick wall behind a stage in his basement, and a bunker full of VHS recordings of the entire run of his show (if you take a nightly show to be approximately 200 episodes a year, that’s 5000 tapes. You have to wonder how large this bunker is). Best has made many mistakes in his life, not least of which was inviting June to his house for the weekend detailed in this book, but they are all paid lip service at least. Best is a man whose career frustrations wouldn’t interest a reader if he was the book’s lead character; filtered through June’s eyes, they seem even more pathetic and insignificant. Best can cry on a bed of money on his private yacht; when we leave him there, it’s difficult to feel anything but contempt for both characters.
Stay Up With Hugo Best is a book about comedy that isn’t funny. It is a book of manners related by a cipher, whose past we barely care about and whose future we’ll never know. June’s brush with fame and fortune reveals nothing more than the trite clichés that practically any other prince and pauper story has already trampled into the ground. Read Crazy Rich Asians instead. It’s an entirely different piece, with only money in common, but it’s a better read regardless.