Well, there are worse ways for starving artists to pay the bills. In “Super Host,” English painter Bennett Driscoll’s wife of 25 years has left him for an American hedge fund manager and taken her money with her; this leaves Bennett with little choice but to rent out his West London home on AirBed and move into a shed-turned-studio behind the house. Part-time Mainer (and daughter of author Richard) Kate Russo has crafted a droll and endearing debut novel centered on Bennett and a series of female renters who are as broken and lonely as he is.

Cover courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Although Bennett is famous enough to have a Wikipedia page, he hasn’t had a solo show since 2013, and his work is no longer selling. “I can’t stand still with you anymore,” Bennett’s wife, Eliza, explained shortly before serving him with divorce papers. As he interpreted her, “She felt he lacked the ambition it would take to get back on top. She was worried that he’d run out of good ideas. He was worried she was right.”

Chapters from the fretful Bennett’s point of view are broken up by stand-alone chapters from the perspectives of each of three female renters who occupy his thoughts to varying degrees. First there’s Alicia, an American who works at an online auction house in the States. Bennett finds her sexually alluring; Alicia, upon studying the Bennett Driscoll painting hung in the room that she’s renting from him, “wonders what it’s like to sleep with a guy that pays that much attention to detail.” But Alicia’s primary interest isn’t Bennett; it’s visiting old haunts – she attended graduate school at the London School of Economics. Unfortunately for Alicia, the streets of London are filled with land mines – like memories of an old heartbreak – and, ultimately, with danger.

Bennett knows better than to entertain carnal thoughts about another American renter, Emma, in part because she’s staying at his house with her husband – at least Theo is supposed to be staying with her; “Mostly,” Emma comes to realize, “he’s over at his mother’s helping babysit Charlie,” Theo’s drug-addicted brother. Like Bennett, Emma is an artist who hasn’t exhibited her work in a while, her obsessive-compulsive disorder no small part of the reason why. The disorder manifests itself in a simultaneously harrowing and glorious sequence that is a high point of Russo’s novel.

Then there’s Kirstie, who has recently split with her abusive TV star husband of many years. As an aging trophy wife, Kirstie hasn’t developed a career or cultivated any intellectual interests (“Since when do trophies get to think?”), so she’s using her time at Bennett’s place to figure out her next move. She senses his loneliness and enjoys getting to know him: “He’s the first person in a long time that she wants to rebuild instead of smashing into a million tiny pieces.” The fondness is mutual but coincides with a drama in Bennett’s personal life that forces him to make a life-altering decision.

“Super Host”’s hybrid structure – short story-like forays interrupt a central narrative – is a welcome innovation: the novel’s multiple perspectives add richness and ensure that Bennett’s story doesn’t play as a voyeuristic male fantasy. There’s a downside, though: when the renters’ stories end, this leaves Bennett, who isn’t necessarily the most magnetizing of Russo’s characters nor the one with the most compelling circumstances, holding the bag. Nevertheless, across the length of the novel, “Super Host” reliably offers the pleasures of the best romantic comedies: impeccably dry-witted dialogue and a twinkling, upscale urban backdrop against which sympathetic characters ache for a connection.

To her immense credit, Russo doesn’t honor the typical rom-com’s obvious solutions to characters’ loose ends, although she does wink at the genre when Bennett recounts Eliza’s criticism of the modern Englishman: “All that floppy-haired, self-deprecating, Hugh Grant nonsense from the nineties had penetrated their psyches and they were all irreparably damaged.” Bennett would be the last Englishman to disagree.

Nell Beram is a former Atlantic staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies. She’s a frequent contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, Salon, and Shelf Awareness.


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