Date Expectations: One Man's Voyage Through the Lonely Hearts is a good illustration of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. It pictures a man standing in a rowboat in a shark-infested sea, while two women, also standing in rowboats, wave at him across the water. Look closer and you notice that the sea is made up of newsprint--lonely hearts columns, to be precise. In the trade, this is what's known as a little too "on the nose".
If what's on the front of the book isn't enough to put you off, then what's on the back surely will. The blurb tells you that Date Expectations--horrible title--is about the efforts of its author to find love and happiness through the lonely hearts columns. In short, it's yet another attempt by a single, balding male to duplicate the success of Bridget Jones's Diary: bloke lit. Needless to say, the blurb boasts that Date Expectations is "hilarious".
I groaned with anticipated boredom as I cracked the spine, wondering how little I could get away with reading before writing my review. Just the first chapter? I looked at my watch: How long until the next episode of Little Britain? Twenty minutes. That should be long enough.
Irritatingly, the first chapter wasn't quite as bad as I'd expected. With enormous reluctance, I set my Sky Plus box to record Little Britain and ploughed on with Date Expectations. Well, I'm sure you can guess the rest. I eventually closed the book, having read the last page, at 4.30am.
Date Expectations is not laugh-out-loud funny. I'm not sure I'd even describe it as "unputdownable". But it's pretty good nonetheless. Paul Reizen, the author, has mastered the trick of making himself very likable. For all his knowingness about the dating game--and Date Expectations is a font of information about what Reizen calls "the non-verbal funny business that usually signifies a call to arms in the circuitry of desire"--Reizen is essentially an innocent when it comes to the opposite sex. He clearly has no natural aptitude for womanizing, so he's methodically taught himself how to do it, in much the same way that someone might learn a foreign language. At times he reminded me of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. He's not merely a nerd; he's borderline autistic.
For instance, his method of telling whether a woman is likely to go to bed with him is to regale her with a long and totally unfunny joke about a beekeeper. If she laughs that means she's up for it. Yet why not try the time-tested method of simply making a pass? Perhaps it's just as well he isn't more straightforward in his approach since few of the women he meets appear to have much interest in him. His first date, whom he describes as looking like an Easter Island statue, does a runner while he's in the gents.
Yet this hapless quality makes Reizen a much more sympathetic narrator than someone more practiced at the art of seduction. Date Expectations reads like a Richard Curtis movie in which the male lead is played by Rowan Atkinson rather than Hugh Grant. He's lovable in spite of himself and, as a result, it takes Mr Bean almost 300 pages to find Mrs Right. She turns out to be a Classics don with a penchant for ancient Egyptian belly dancing. He uses an odd phrase to convey to the reader what it is he likes about her: the authenticity of the weird. In other words, he falls in love with her because she's as brainy and eccentric as he is. It's not their eyes that meet across the crowded room; it's their jam jar specs.
I'm not sure Date Expectations will be snapped up by Working Title. Reizen may have taught himself how to play the dating game, but he hasn't put the same work into mastering the romantic comedy genre. The woman he eventually ends up with should make her entrance in the first thirty pages, not the last, and their relationship needs to be tested by something a little more dramatic than Reizen's guilty admission that he lied about his age in his lonely hearts ad. There aren't nearly enough highs and lows in Date Expectations--the nebbish narrator isn't neurotic enough. He's like a British version of Woody Allen, only heavily dosed up on mood-stabilizing drugs.
Still, it's a pretty entertaining read. Paul Reizen is obviously a talented writer and now that he's found a woman to settle down with he can get down to the serious business of writing a proper comic novel.