Updated: Jun 10, 2021
I cannot believe that I have made it this far in life without having read any of Nick Hornby's books. So firstly a big thank you to Nat for picking this for our thirteenth buddy read.
"She wanted intellectual stimulation and sexual excitement, and if she couldn't have that then she didn't need anybody."
As it was beautifully put in the book, this story is like the movie Guess Who's Coming To Dinner. Except in this case, the female part of the couple is a forty two year old divorcée, and Mum, Lucy. And the male is half her age, twenty two year old, single Joseph.
Amusingly, when Lucy mentions the movie to Joseph, he'd not heard of it. Nor of Sidney Poitier.
LUCY: Oh shit. This is Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
JOSEPH: You've lost me.
This is just one of many examples that gently and subtly highlight the age - and life experience - differences between Lucy and Joseph.
Lucy and Joseph seem to have fallen into a relationship. One of those, right person at the right time situations. Apart from the age gap, racially Lucy is white and Joseph is a man of colour (I really don't know the correct term anymore, as the goalposts seem to always be moving).
Lucy is in a secure job, as the Head of the English Department at the local high school.
Joseph cobbles together a living via working half a dozen part time jobs.
Lucy is a Mum to two young boys, and in the awkward stage of being setup on blind dinner dates by well meaning friends.
Joseph is never short of female company, and thoughts of family are far into the future.
Yet the attraction is there. It's more than simple lust, or purely physical. It's the wonder of finding someone you can feel comfortable around, without there being obvious common threads. Someone you can just be yourself with, without pretence.
Friends, family and colleagues are puzzled. There is distrust and possibly a healthy dose of envy. What do Lucy and Joseph possibly see in each other? Where will this relationship go? Who's using who? Or do they genuinely love and care for each other?
"I like this one. I want to be with her."
Set in 2016 with Brexit as a running theme, Nick Hornby cleverly threads the yes/no vote to highlight the differences between Lucy and Joseph's life experiences and social circles. I love the discussions - often pointed and heated - which the characters displayed depending which way they were voting.
As Collin (who I buddy read this with) so wisely points out in his review, it's as if Brexit is used as "a metaphor for their relationship."
I really enjoyed this. It's been years since I'd last read any of Nick Hornby's books. This reminds me of why it's such a pleasure to read his writing. He writes about real people, in everyday situations. He writes with low key, intelligent humour. His characters are believable. They're you, and me.
What stood out to me was the point being made about living in the moment. To stop worrying about next week, next month, next year. After all, what other moment can you live in?
I actually cared about Lucy and Joseph, and wished like in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, that they could thumb their noses at society, and make an unlikely relationship work.
"All they could do was walk, and see how far they could get."
The novel opens with Lucy, one of the protagonists, mentally going through the things that she hates in her mind. Try as she might, she cannot come up with anything that trumps waiting in a que to get into her local butcher’s shop. Waiting in the cold outside as the line slowly moves towards the entrance. To make matters worse she is stuck with, Emma, who would consider herself a friend of Lucy’s, but Lucy does not really share the same view, perhaps, acquaintance might be a better definition. Emma’s constant prattle about sex is driving Lucy insane.
Just as Emma’s talk is starting to cause sniggers in the line, they finally make it to the counter, behind the counter we meet Joseph, the other protagonist of the novel.
It is also here that we find the structure of the narrative as the perspective changes to Joseph. Throughout the novel the perspective will shift between protagonists, many times quite suddenly and within the chapter and the book is a far more rewarding read because of it.
Emma flirts with Joseph outrageously but it is Lucy that, despite Emma’s flirtatious distractions, catches Joseph’s eye. They have met before this is where Lucy shops, but he does not just see Lucy, he “notices” her. Big difference.
Lucy is single because her toxic husband Paul just could not seem to rid himself of all the habits and actions that made him toxic. Drug use, bringing drugs and users and dealers into their family home with the children. Mental abuse in the form of calling her names and constantly demeaning her. When violence entered the picture in the form of Paul, hitting a Deliveroo driver, Lucy decided to leave and move him out of the picture for her and the kid’s safety.
Joseph is black single and twenty-two years of age. He has been drifting along in life not truly sure what he wants from it. He works multiple part time jobs, while he hopes he will find some direction in life. Baby-sitting is one his jobs and this is how he and Lucy start to get to know each other.
What makes this a great read, apart from Hornby’s simple yet elegant prose, is that the reader gets to see the relationship from both perspectives. The mistaken assumptions, the fear of rejection, the twin taboos of age and race difference, which really should not be taboo at all in this age.
The narrative is also populated by some great characters who contribute to the subtle humour of the novel. It will not have you laughing out loud buy you may find yourself with a smile on your face for most of the book.
Another major strength of the book is the dialogue. Dialogue, particularly in this genre, needs to feel real and flow along nicely and Hornby’s dialogue not only does the job, it’s great and adds so much depth to the characters.
It’s easy to say that love conquers all and love transcends the boundaries and limits that society and civilization place upon it. But this book is firmly grounded in reality, and the relationship never feels stable.
Everything they do, going to a play, meeting friends, attending functions, exposes cracks in the relationship. Cracks that seem to grow deeper as time goes on threatening the two with arguments and potential break up. The question is whether their love is enough to repair the cracks.
It’s about worrying and stressing over what the people in your circle of life think. Your friends, your workmates, your parents and relatives. How these worries eventually end up corroding your own thoughts.
By all accounts this is a relationship that just should not work on every level. The difference in age, the difference in race, the difference in class. Reading the narrative from both perspectives we find that both characters spend all their time worrying about these differences and how easily any one of these differences could have dire consequences for the relationship.
This novel takes place while England is in the middle of their Brexit referendum, and at times I feel Hornby is using Brexit as a metaphor for the relationship. The pros and cons of staying or leaving, everybody having a different opinion. Or is he simply using it as another prop to shine a light on the difference between the couple?
Above all this book to me is about just doing what feels right in life. Forget about what anybody thinks, forget about what society deems taboo or frowns upon. If it feels good, logically it must be good. Live your life doing what makes you happy, not what others think makes you happy.
A most entertaining novel. 4 Stars.
Once again Nat and I are in perfect unison and this was a tremendously enjoyable read. I think Nat nails it when she says Nick's books are so real. You really find yourself empathizing with the characters. A four from Nat and a four from me gives this novel a total score of eight.