In the novella-length title story of William Boyd’s new collection, one of Bethany Mellmoth’s many dreams is to be a successful photographer. Like all the others, this dream doesn’t work out. Bethany does, however, get as far as planning her first book, which would have comprised pictures of flowers struggling up through concrete – and whose own title would have suited almost all the stories here, including hers. It was to be called Suffering from Optimism.
We first meet Bethany when she’s 22, and has recently split up from her boyfriend, dropped out of college and been rejected by six drama schools. As a result, she decides to try novel-writing, and is soon filled with a warm sense of literary promise. (She’s particularly proud of the words “a novel by Bethany Mellmoth” on the first page.)
Until, that is, she’s offered a tiny part in a low-budget film and starts dreaming of movie stardom instead. When the film project collapses, she resolves to give theatre a go, and “finds herself skipping – actually skipping along the sand”. Unfortunately, her theatrical ambitions go nowhere either, although she does get a gig passing around the hat for a street juggler.
In other words, like many a Boyd character before her, Bethany is forced to realise that life rarely “turn[s] out the way you want it to” – or, more starkly still, that “Things Go Wrong”, a phrase she vows to make “her private mantra”. But, like many another Boyd character as well (and perhaps even like many of the rest of us), just because she has to learn this lesson doesn’t mean that she ever quite does.