Nick Hornby’s new novel, Just Like You, features an improbable relationship between Lucy, a forty-two-year-old white English teacher, and Joseph, a twenty-two-year-old Black man who works in a local butcher shop. Joseph becomes Lucy’s sons’ babysitter, and then her lover. Hornby recreates the period just before the Brexit vote of 2016 and evokes the cultural milieu of North London in this novel of manners, which brilliantly portrays the uncertainty of Brexit and the vapid early-twenty-first-century moral malaise, which Lucy sees in her post-separation dating prospects, and which pervades the culture and lives of Brits beset by indecision.
Charles Dickens crops up several times in the novel as an interest of Lucy’s and as an author whose work Joseph knows nothing of; Hornby has expressed elsewhere his deep admiration for the introspective quality of Dickens’s work, and the main characters in Hornby’s novel do engage in a sort of twenty-first-century version of Dickensian soul searching, but it is not a deeply spiritual one. In a witty essay for The Believer (republished in 2014), Hornby discusses at length his admiration for David Copperfield, praising Dickens’s long, character-abundant novels. “Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes?” Hornby asks. “Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town!) If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot—long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy.” If Dickens for Hornby represents a sort of ideal novelist, one can see his ambition in his creation of an array of realistic, yet minor characters as the means by which one can figure out one’s soul.
Hornby’s entertaining remarks point to the challenge he has created in Just Like You, in which these minor characters become involved in the romantic plot twists, the complications of Brexit, and the disparate ages of the main characters, and illustrate the cultural gap between the generations and classes that add to the diverse meal of Just Like You. Along with Joseph and Lucy and her two sons, Hornby’s minor characters help develop the various threads within the story. Joseph’s parents, members of the working class, who are separated, present both a certain conservative view on Brexit, which Joseph’s father expresses to his son, and a conservative view on marriage, which Joseph’s mother expresses to Lucy. These views, which contrast with Lucy’s more liberal views, reveal differences in social class and morality in a rather Dickensian manner, without preaching.
Lucy and Joseph do not seem to have much in common, other than their passion for each other. Back in London, in addition to working at the butcher’s, Joseph also serves as a youth football coach and works in a local health club, but his real interest is in becoming a successful DJ. Lucy, an English department head who prefers her lover “read fiction—proper fiction,” not an action-packed thriller, has no interest in soccer and Joseph has no knowledge of the works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, or William Shakespeare. Enjoying intimacy and watching The Sopranos on television, along with engaging in some liberal conversation, seem to be all Joseph and Lucy share, apart from their care for her sons.
Lucy’s children are two soccer-obsessed boys, who seem interested mostly in FIFA and Xbox. Fans of Hornby’s brilliant soccer memoir, Fever Pitch, about his youthful football fandom, with its obsessively-detailed recollections of Arsenal football matches, and his finely-edited anthology of soccer or “football” (as known in the UK) writing, My Favorite Year,may not be disappointed with this novel, for Just Like You also contains a reasonable consideration of football and family. Joseph is a protector for her sons (their father also loves football, but he struggles with alcohol and anger), and the mutual interest Joseph and the boys share in soccer remains the most charming aspect of the novel.
Hornby has not lost touch with common people; in Just Like You he remains a keen observer of class differences, as was Dickens, but while he touches on the religious and spiritual inclinations that remain so important to Joseph’s mother, he fails to truly explore this essential side of life. Late in the novel, as Lucy worries about a forthcoming meeting with Joseph’s mother, Hornby writes: “Lucy wanted to avoid the disapproval of a woman her own age, and for some reason she worried that her children would be judged too. They probably owned too much, talked too often, used language that might horrify Joseph’s mother, a woman who went to church every Sunday.” When Lucy and Mrs. Campbell do finally meet, over tea, as Joseph’s twenty-third birthday approaches, Mrs. Campbell asks the still-not-divorced Lucy, rather pointedly: “Meaning you’d be free to marry Joseph?” To which, after some rumination, “‘I have no intention of marrying Joseph,’ Lucy said. ‘He’s too young, and he will want children one day. That won’t be with me.’” Mrs. Campbell asks, “So why slow him up?”
Earlier, Hornby also depicts awkward, yet humorous exchanges between Lucy and her contemporaries, including her soon-to-be ex-husband, Paul, with his new girlfriend. In one scene, the conversation becomes tangled and awkward, when Michael Marwood, the successful novelist who holds a romantic interest in Lucy, remarks that he has met “him.” Paul and his new girlfriend, who makes documentary films on David Lean and Alec Guinness, assume Michael means “Joseph,” Lucy’s absent lover, when Michael actually means “David Lean.” Hornby does well with these awkward exchanges, but Paul, his girlfriend, Michael, and his mention of David Lean and Alec Guinness seem somewhat incidental to the plot of the novel. One wishes that Hornby invested more in the relationship between Lucy and Joseph and explained more fully why their relationship seems to not only work, but moreover persist, and survive. In the middle of the novel Lucy compares her relationship with Joseph to a houseplant; it flourishes in the house exclusively, as Joseph never mingles with Lucy’s contemporaries, those accomplished, educated professionals, outside the house, and Lucy never mingles with Joseph’s contemporaries, those young people just completing university or trying to find their place in the world, at the music club. For readers awaiting some reality to hit the relationship between Lucy and Joseph, it arrives in the form of Jaz, a woman Joseph’s age with whom he has some affinity, but their hook-up and connection remain elusive and short-lived, though Jaz, who appears near the mid-point of the novel, shares an interest in music with Joseph, as well as the same cultural background. She is not the only young woman who catches Joseph’s interest. Later, Hanna, another new minor character, also appears at a music club Joseph visits, sans Lucy. Joseph later admits to Lucy that he has met someone else, and the romantic aspect of their relationship pauses, but Joseph continues as Lucy’s babysitter, even as “love” has been casually expressed between Lucy and Joseph as a “love” among them as family with her two boys. The novel follows the intertwined lives of Lucy, newly separated, again, and Joseph, now with Hanna. Lucy, Joseph, and Hanna vacation together in Thomas Hardy country at Michael Marwood’s country house; afterward, Lucy tries to convince Joseph that Hanna is the one for him, but he refuses to be convinced and the new relationship wilts.
Early in the novel, Lucy second guesses herself on nearly every decision as she negotiates dating or drinking. Both she and Joseph remain filled with self-doubt and indecision: Joseph expresses a lack of faith in God and admits his church attendance is merely an effort to placate his mum. But the reader awaits deeper soul searching, an epiphany, or true change of heart as the novel moves toward its close and the Brexit vote. As Lucy questions herself on continuing her relationship with Joseph, and discusses the upcoming Brexit referendum with him, she remarks that we are all in “teams” now, with those voting to “Leave” the EU on one side and those voting to “Remain” on the opposing team. Joseph doesn’t know which team he favors. Similarly, some readers may wonder how long the Lucy and Joseph relationship will last, yet it continues.
New York: Riverhead Books, 2020. 355 pp. $27.00 (U.S.).