Review: Nick Hornby creates a couple worth cheering for

  • "Just Like You" a novel by Nick Hornby.

    "Just Like You" a novel by Nick Hornby. Associated Press/Riverhead Books

 
 
Posted9/29/2020 6:00 AM

"Just Like You" by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books)

Has the world ever needed a Nick Hornby book more than it does today? The British novelist who gave us "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" is back with "Just Like You," an endearing love story that defies convention.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Set in London as Britons vote on whether or not to leave the European Union, the novel is a breezy read, grounded in just enough realism to make it all feel, well, real.

Lucy is the main character, a 41-year-old divorced schoolteacher with two young sons. We meet her in 2016 standing in line at the butcher shop, reluctantly gossiping with a girlfriend. "What are you looking for? In a man?" asks her friend Emma. "Hygiene," is Lucy's sudden reply.

Fast forward about 5 minutes when Lucy first eyes a 22-year-old young man named Joseph, as he deflects Emma's flirtatious comments while ordering meat.

"I could eat him up," Emma tells Lucy afterward.

"He didn't look like he was interested in being eaten up," replies Lucy.

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"He doesn't know how I'd cook him."

"Lucy wasn't sure this metaphor worked," writes Hornby. "Knowing how you were going to be cooked hardly made the prospect of being devoured more enticing."

And so it goes for pages and pages. Hornby's knack for dialogue and the crackling wit he gives his characters makes the chapters fly.

It's not giving much away to say that Lucy and Joseph commence a relationship. A relationship that shouldn't work, but somehow mostly does. He begins as her babysitter, and then he's a babysitter with benefits, and then he's just all benefits. It's touching and lovely and all the things that honest relationships should be in this day and age.

Or as Hornby deftly describes it from inside Joseph's head: "If you'd asked him before … what made him happy, he wouldn't really have understood the relevance of the question. Now he knew the answer: sleeping with Lucy, eating with Lucy, watching TV with Lucy. And maybe there was no future in it, but there was a present, and that's what life consists of."

It's not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. Joseph is black and Lucy is white, and that creates a degree of racial tension. Lucy's neighbor calls the police when he sees Joseph knocking on her door late one night and not getting an answer. After the confrontation, Hornby writes some revealing dialogue, starting with Joseph's voice:

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"That wasn't such a big deal."

"That's terrible, then. Because it should be."

"You don't want the police turning up when there's a guy skulking around outside your window at night? I would."

"You're being flippant."

"Don't tell me what to feel."

"I'm telling you not to write if off as nothing."

He responds: "If I don't write things like that off as nothing, I'd drive myself mad."

The novel is full of exchanges like that about race and Brexit, as these seemingly incompatible lovers figure out that maybe, just maybe, there's a place for their relationship in this modern world.

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