Book review: Just Like You, by Nick Hornby

Age, race and class are all barriers to be jumped over by the lovers in Nick Hornby’s acutely observed and tender novel, writes David Robinson

Friday, 18th September 2020, 4:34 pm
Detail from the cover of Just Like You, by Nick Hornby
Detail from the cover of Just Like You, by Nick Hornby

Lucy is in the queue at a north London butcher’s alongside Emma and wishes she wasn’t. Because Emma – 15 years into a boring marriage, their kids once friends but no longer since they went private – is just the kind to pry into Lucy’s life now that her marriage is over and she is dating again. She’s also loud, so other people in the queue can hear. “You know why I envy you?” she says. Silence. “You’re going to have sex with someone you’ve never had sex with before.”

That’s the start of Nick Hornby’s novel, and though it might sound banal, it’s as good an opening as I’ve read for a long while. Why? Because almost without us becoming aware of it, he has told us everything we need to know about Lucy and Joseph: that she is 42, a divorced head of English at a nearby comp and he is 22, a wannabe DJ living with his mother. Back outside, Emma says he looks like a young Denzel Washington. No he doesn’t, says Lucy, but of the three black people Emma’s ever noticed, he’s probably the closest fit.

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As well as the precision of Hornby’s emotional triangulation, there are plenty of other hooks. Credible dialogue, of course: one expects nothing less from an Oscar nominated screenwriter (Brooklyn, An Education). But there’s also a delicate seasoning of self-reflexivity, with Lucy denying to Emma that she’s on the lookout for a new relationship “in a way that, were this a novel, could convey a meaning ironically at odds with the storyteller’s intentions.”

At first, Lucy and Joseph are paired up with partners who seem more obvious fits – a middle-aged novelist and a singer respectively – but Hornby’s heart isn’t in it just as theirs isn’t. What he wants to do is what he did in About A Boy: see whether an atypical relationship can survive everyday realities. In that 1993 novel, the question was whether an ultra-cool amoral idler could ever gain the emotional maturity to care for a troubled teen; here, after Hornby has manoeuvred Lucy and Joseph closer together by having him volunteer to babysit, the test is whether their relationship can credibly clear the triple jump of age, class and race.

Which is the biggest threat? These days, we can – almost – rule out class and everyone in the novel falls over themselves to deny that it’s race, so the 20-year age gap between the two lovers might seem the obvious answer. Yet, for all the comedy of seeing Islington liberals squirm over seemingly innocuous racial faux-pas, Hornby adroitly shows the ubiquity of micro aggressions and how quickly they can spiral out of control. Accidentally locked out of Lucy’s flat one night, Joseph is accused by a neighbour of being “lippy” after for pointing out that the lateness of the hour for him to be waiting outside for her is none of his business. Soon the police are called, and virtually accuse him of stealing the jacket he is wearing. Lucy’s outrage doesn’t change their minds because this never happens (“It was like multiplying a positive number by a negative number: the answer was always minus”).

Hornby has had a good eye for the way we live now, whether it’s on-trend music, double-screening children, teen argot du jour (“mandems” anyone?), DJ dreams or – at the other end of the age range – post-divorce parenting and Viagra etiquette. Perhaps he makes more than he needs to of setting his novel at the time of the Brexit referendum, but even this cannot spoil such a well-told, thoughtful, tender and occasionally devastatingly funny love story.

Just Like You, by Nick Hornby, Viking, 310pp, £16.99

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