On his cult-hit web site, thingsmygirlfriendandI havearguedabout.com, British writer Mil Millington dissects his fractious relationship with his long-time live-in, hilariously portraying her as violently irrational and himself as stubborn, neurotic, and illogical, though always somehow right. His debut novel, Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, centers on a squabbling couple who follow roughly the same dynamic. For a change of pace, the stubborn, neurotic, illogical protagonist of Millington's follow-up novel, A Certain Chemistry, lives with a woman who isn't excessively demanding or flat-out insane. The new paradigm isn't much of a shock, but what is surprising is how unpleasant Millington's stock-character protagonist is without a worthy foil to make his excesses seem justified.
A Certain Chemistry's Tom Cartwright is a reasonably successful freelancer who ghostwrites books and magazine articles covering topics he knows nothing about. When he's asked to write the "autobiography" of soap-opera star Georgina Nye, he's initially just happy about the potentially substantial profits. Then he meets Georgina, says all the right things while cursing himself for saying all the wrong things, and, to his surprise, begins an affair that entails copious amounts of spectacularly inept, spastic lying to Sara, his live-in girlfriend of five years.
Like Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, A Certain Chemistry is lively and funny, at least during the lengthy buildup. Millington's supporting cast consists of generally entertaining, over-the-top stereotypes, though Sara and Georgina, by contrast, are pleasantly well-characterized and down to earth. Their humanity makes Tom's behavior seem inhuman by contrast. In using one and betraying the other, he initially comes across as a hapless but lucky cad, especially given the interstitial interjections of an equally hapless-sounding God, who explains the chemical responses governing human emotional and sexual behavior.
But when the situation begins to degrade, the humor disappears. Tom's self-justifications become progressively more shallow, selfish, and offensive, but Millington nonetheless follows him through his post-crisis wallowing, long after the story's entertainment value and momentum have disappeared. And God's semi-apologetic, semi-defensive interruptions similarly grow stale long before the book drags to its inconclusive conclusion. Much of A Certain Chemistry's point, according to its far-from-omniscient God, is that love and lust, fidelity and infidelity, commitment and betrayal all function as natural parts of the human condition. But as personified by Millington's least sympathetic character to date, that explanation sounds like just one of many weak justifications for unjustifiable behavior.