The new Nick Hornby is not a romance. It’s a story about love, sure, but not a romance. The premise, two opposite people falling in love, poses a lot of interesting questions. However, I feel that Hornby failed to answer them on a deeper level.
I really liked the opening of Just Like You, reading it I thought, “this is going to be a five star review”, which isn’t something I think very often. The premise is simple and set up beautifully. Lucy is a 42 year old english teacher (Head of Department, no less) who is separated from her husband (Paul) and has two sons (Dylan and Al) who are 8 and 10. Joseph, on the other hand, is a 22 year old who has a number of part-time jobs including at the butcher’s, at the gym, coaching football and babysitting. Lucy is white, Joseph is black.
The personalities of Lucy and Joesph were well written and really enjoyable. Lucy is one of those say-what-you’re-thinking kind of people, the sort of person I’d aspire to me. She’s sassy and level headed, her experience with her ex-husband Paul has left her, not bitter, but strong. I like this quote:
Lucy knew lots of people who sent their kids to private schools, and they never failed to make a mess of explaining how they had arrived at their decision. The reasons usually involved some kind of complex, barely comprehensible sensitivity that prevented the child from attending the local comprehensive, so even though the parents would have loved to send them up the road, it just wouldn’t work in this particular case…
Joesph too, was an enjoyable character to get to know. He’s creative, likes children, has a complex family dynamic and is consistently sarcastic. He has aspirations (to be a DJ) and we meet a small number of his friends whose storylines I would have liked more of.
However, that’s where their personalities end and the characters plateau.
The premise is that two people can fall in love when they have nothing in common, when they’re almost total opposites. Which is certainly true and I was expecting a lot more complex conflict. However, as soon as the relationship actually started I began to cringe.
It read like Hornby had sat down and made two lists. Like this:
Lucy, 42, white, english teacher, likes to read, separated, two kids, into Shakespeare and Hardy, friends work in publishing or teaching or photography/writing.
Joseph, 22, black, works multiple jobs, mum lives in an ex-council house and works as a nurse, likes FIFA and football in general, wants to be a DJ.
In fact I told my cousin the premise as she began to reel off things she expected to happen. Does he get stopped by the police? Yep. Know someone in jail? Yep. He goes to church, he meets a black girl who is an amazing singer…etc
Lucy, as well, no beer in her fridge, why not? Because she’s a middle class woman? I love beer. She didn’t know anything about football, she danced mumsy, her friends were all employed and well accomplished…etc
As the book went on, they lacked more and more depth. I’m not saying that all of these things couldn’t be true about Joseph and/or Lucy, but people are more complex than that.
Sure, you can base characters on the basics, but everything in the book became about these basics. I was longing for something that was different about either of them. Arguably one of the most interesting characters is Paul, Lucy’s ex-husband who has a drug and alcohol problem. We get two scenes of Paul and the only one that involves any conflict is resolved quickly and neatly. I can’t speak from experience here but surely if your ex had a substance abuse problem you may be left a little more scarred – Lucy seemed to cope a little too well.
It also lacked plot. The characters barely do anything. Which I guess is how life is, most of the time, but there’s a way to write those kind of books and this didn’t hit the mark for me. To grip me (in romance) there have to be events, think One Day by David Nicholls. There are a few events, but not enough for the disparateness to not be noticeable.
There’s also something personal here. I grew up in North London, I went to school there, my family live there. The complex issues that face young people could have been pushed further. As an example, there’s a moment where Joseph gets stopped by the police. He is neither angry nor surprised, in fact Lucy is angrier than he is. I wonder if this could have been pressed more, he could have explained why he wasn’t upset, he could have explained other times it has happened; people in relationships tell stories, this is how they get to know each other, and we didn’t get this.
On a similar note, Lucy’s experience as a teacher could have been explored more. Hornby himself worked for a time as an english teacher, but we never get to see Lucy do any teaching. And there’s no planning or marking! (Teachers everywhere are gasping here.)
These characters were stereotypes. And I can see what Hornby was trying to do here, I really can. Hornby’s writing is excellent and I did fly through it, but I was really uncomfortable, for the last third of the book especially, and I was also disappointed with the end. The idea that some relationships aren’t meant to be a forever thing is both a good and true one and I wish this had been articulated better.