In keeping with the movie books, I selected this book, Nick Hornby’s first novel which was made into a film with John Cusack. Remember him? He was like an American Hugh Grant but with a shorter career and a less British career. Maybe I am conflating the two a little more than one does, but this book has his picture on the cover, and the setting of the book is England instead of Chicago so it’s more Hugh Grant territory than the American film. At any rate, I got this book from ABC Books as part of the cover story for my visit when Julian Lynn visited to sign books. I know, you don’t care, really, but sometimes I can search the blog and link the book back to its purchase point so I can see what else I might have bought then and have read since (although it was only a small trip, I’ve only also read The Physics of Love).
So. The story of the book is that the protagonist, a 35-year-old record store owner named Rob Fleming gets dumped by his long-time live-in girlfriend for the guy who formerly lived upstairs from them (and the two move in together elsewhere), which triggers Rob’s reflection on his relationships and his life which seems to have stalled. Prone to making a list, Rob lists his top five heartbreaks of all time and gets in touch with those women and moons over Laura, whom he met while he was DJing at a defunct club. She has gone onto become an attorney at a big law firm in London, which creates a gulf between them in Rob’s mind, and he’s starting to get a little bitter.
The book is told in shortish chapters of first person narration, more stream of consciousness than stream of time, and a bit unreliable as he might be trying to present the best possible rationalization for his actions, but somewhere underneath he might think he can improve. And at the end of the book, he might, but the reader has enough to doubt but hope for the best for the guy.
It captures the nineties and young peoples’ relationship anxiety zeitgeist pretty well, or at least what I remember of it (although, gentle reader, my humble love life narrative from the era is pretty pedestrian), but the character is 35, which seems a bit old, but certainly prone to self-doubt if he’s living the same life that he lived in his 20s ten or fifteen years later.
So I rather liked the book. At times, its expression of mortality and uncertainty struck me pretty raw, and it certainly made me glad I was not Rob or Lloyd Dobler at 35.
I did mark some things in the book for extra attention; you can find them below.
You need as much ballast as possible to stop you from floating away; you need people around you, things going on, otherwise life is like some film where the money ran out, and there are no sets, or locations, or supporting actors, and it’s just one bloke on his own staring into the camera with nothing to do ad nobody to speak to, and who’d believe in this character then?
I’ve had moments where I feel this way, too: the day-to-day maintenance of work-parenting-chores-bed leads a lot of things and friends to fall away. One does have to work a bit to keep busy. Maybe not everyone; maybe just introverts or lazy people like me who have, a lot of times, not bothered to keep those other things going.
On the other hand, I have a seventeen-year-old blog to keep me company. No, wait, that might be the same hand.
Speaking of the number of sexual partners he’s had, Rob thinks:
Ten isn’t a lot, not for the thirtysomething bachelor. Twenty isn’t a lot, if you look at it that way. Anything over thirty, I reckon, and you’re entitled to appear on an Oprah about promiscuity.
I wonder if I need to make a separate category to list books that mention Oprah as a cultural touchstone.
Also, to confess, I have not enough sexual partners to even trigger one of the conditions he mentions. At times, I wonder what was wrong with me. Which might be a good character thing to put into a book to strike right into the self-doubt of many middle-aged people. Or, perhaps not.
A False Dilemma, But
In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot-how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.
The book contains a lot of this expository sorting out of emotions, the aggrandizement of the narrator’s own self-doubt and whatnot. Which works, for the most part, where it doesn’t work in other books.
So, to sum up, I liked the book but didn’t want to be the character. I think some people liked the drama of those uncertain relationship times and would want to be Rob, but not me, brother. I’m glad I outgrew whatever I had in common with him.