Just Like You
Nick Hornby, Penguin Viking, 2020, ISBN 978-0-241-33857-5, 310pp A review by Trevor Moore
Now, here’s a book from one of Britain’s best contemporary novelists. His first novel, 1995’s High Fidelity was made into a movie (starring John Cusack) and a Broadway musical. It was recently reimagined this year in Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West’s 10-part series starring Zoë Kravitz. His appreciation of popular music is reflected in 2002’s 31 Songs (oddly enough about 26 songs). I am sure that this is why the soundtrack to the High Fidelity movie, which opens with The Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ You’re Gonna Miss Me, is probably the best-ever movie soundtrack – at least according to me. The soundtrack to the TV series is also pretty good. But I digress … Nick Hornby is a great writer and the movie industry knows that he tells a great story that translates well to screen … I leave you to watch 1998’s About A Boy and 1992’s Fever Pitch.
I had missed the publication of Just Like You, but it is fortunate that two events coincided. The first event was that my daughter noticed its publication and the second was that I had a birthday. As a result, the book arrived, tastefully wrapped and as a great surprise. The novel is about an unlikely relationship between Joseph, who is a 22 year old man, who works part-time in a butcher’s shop and does a range of other part-time jobs while he prepares to go to university, and Lucy, who is the 42 year old head of English at a local secondary school. An added factor in the relationship is that Joseph is black, and Lucy is white. The novel is set against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum. Hornby manages to capture not only the divisions between leave and remain but also the illogicality of the positions sometimes taken by people on either side. In the end, Joseph cannot make his mind up between Lucy’s passionate remain views and his father’s equally passionate leave views. He puts a tick in both boxes on the ballot sheet. It’s worth noting that Hornby wrote the novel before the Black Lives Matter movement increased our awareness of cultural appropriation.
Lucy has two sons and her relationship with Joseph starts when he agrees to babysit the two boys. They are delighted because Joseph knows one end of an Xbox from the other and he is a fount of soccer (or football as the English call it) knowledge. One thing leads to another and … well, I already told you what happens. Hornby is a master of taking his time to tell a tale so that although you know that this relationship is going to happen, there’s just a nagging doubt that … perhaps it won’t. Once they have consummated the relationship and they realise that they are deeply fond of each other, the problems begin.
The two obvious problems are race and age, but this is England. Even now you need to add class, or whatever passes these days as class. Joseph’s mother realises that her son’s girlfriend is the same age as she is. Conversely, Joseph realises that Lucy is the same age as his mother. What will happen if and when the two women meet? Lucy is middle class, vaguely left-of-centre and intellectually inclined while Joseph has been brought up as a churchgoing (though not enthusiastically) working-class boy. The set-up could have been clichéd, but Hornby is a past master.
The book roars into life from page 1. While the underlying issues are complex and serious this is, at its heart, a funny book. He paints a couple of endearing characters and the reader is continually on their side hoping that it will all turn out OK and that everyone will be happy. Inevitably they drift apart, but they reunite; their love for each other is palpable. You are not quite sure what is the basis for that love, but then perhaps we never really know the reasons why we love someone. At one point in the novel Joseph muses "Could you only love someone who thought the same way as you, or were there other bridges to be built further up the river?" And that is what this novel is about.
I loved it. I read it in 2 days, and it made me want to go back and read Hornby’s other 8 novels … they’re all on my shelves somewhere. He is such a great storyteller. Buy this one and read it.