368 pgs. | $27.00 hardcover
Nick Hornby is the king of the high concept relationship drama, from High Fidelity (a list-obsessed record store owner revisits his top 5 breakups) to About a Boy (a man pretends to be a father to pick up single moms and ends up befriending a teenage boy instead), from Juliet, Naked (a woman falls for the reclusive rock star her husband is obsessed with) to State of the Union (we get to know a warring couple by seeing their visits to the pub on their way to marriage counseling). The high concept is what grabs your attention, but it’s his skill at insightfully diving into his flawed characters’ minds that really make his novels shine: plot draws you in, character keeps you coming back.
His latest, Just Like You, flips the script a bit in that the concept isn’t all that high: meet unlikely new lovers Lucy and Joseph. She’s 41, he’s 22. She’s a teacher and divorced mother of two, he works at the local butcher shop and dreams of being a DJ. She’s cultured, he’s stumped for small talk at a dinner party. She’s white, he’s black. And, oh yeah, the book is set in 2016 pre-Brexit England, and she’s “Remain”…but he’s not so sure.
The latter is about as close as this book gets to a “concept” and even that is only window dressing, brought up a smattering of times. Instead, we’re treated to watching two people who are meant for each other fumble their way through realizing it, with all the breakups, makeups, and more traditionally appropriate alternate suitors one would expect. It’s odd to say, but as the book went on, I felt myself less and less invested in the plot, yet more and more invested in getting to know Joseph and Lucy. Eight novels (plus multiple screenplays and nonfiction works) into his career, Hornby knows how to build his characters realistically through actions and dialogue. These lead characters feel very lived-in, with well-developed personalities and recognizable quirks—Hornby in particular writes Lucy as if she were a personal friend he knows inside and out—and just being a fly on the wall to their falling in love is satisfying enough.
Oddly, it’s when the plot rears its ugly head and the sparks are supposed to fly that the book falls somewhat flat. One of the odd problems is that when the couple should be having arguments, they’re still agreeing with each other; when Lucy starts to argue she’s too old for Joseph, he mostly concedes the point. The formula, of course, is for one to want the relationship when the other doesn’t, then vice versa, until they finally tumble into agreement and romance ensues. Seeing the formula subverted is unexpected, but when it plays out as “I think I’m too old for you,” “Oh, me too, let’s break up but there’s still 100 pages left” that’s not a satisfying recipe for tasty drama. Spending time with Joseph and Lucy is appealing enough that you’ll still happily keep flipping through the pages of Just Like You, but the lack of a consistently satisfying conceptual, narrative drive, keeps it a half-step down from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Hornby’s best. | Jason Green