book by Nick Hornby
Annotation by Kate Maruyama
This is the first book I’ve read for my MFA where I found myself dwelling on the question of book vs. movie: what worked for the novel that just didn’t translate to the screen? Coming from writing screenplays, I am constantly looking for my blind spots and this is one way of thinking about them. Rob Fleming, as a mere collection of his actions, doesn’t really work as a character. While the movie was able to inject a bit of his voice here and there, it is that voice that makes the book work on a heartbreaking, sympathetic level. This leaves the movie, even with the appeal of John Cusack, in the dark. In the movie, you are thinking, “man, get your shit together; why isn’t he getting his shit together?” In the book you are thinking, “He’s never really going to get his shit together” but it is all the more intriguing to see the how and why of his failure to do so.
Hornby captures the absurd inner monologue of growing into adulthood, in all of its narcissistic meanderings, decisions and that huge grudge (I’m not getting fucking old) it’s just hard to get the hell past; that grudge has people blindly fighting maturity. Most people go through this in their late twenties and have it cleared up by their thirties, but at thirty-five Rob’s a little late to the party. This is one of the things that makes him so interesting.
Hornby has us deeply buried in Rob’s myopic perception of the world around him from the beginning of the story. We know, by the tenor of his voice, that he is probably kidding himself about a lot of things, and the truths in his life are revealed in increments, as he figures them out for himself. This is a lovely approach to read, but I had difficulty in not really getting to know Laura until the last quarter of the book where they get back together. She turns out to be completely suited for him, but our not knowing and Rob’s bitter thoughts about her during the breakup made it hard for me to get a handle on what exactly he saw in her and therefore, why he is so upset over the split. We just know that she is patient and weary and may very well be lacking in a sense of humor (once we get to know her we learn that this isn’t so). We know Rob’s charm from page one, and the difficulties in dating him are pretty obvious: he is single-minded, “can’t be bothered” to do anything (this is an English approach to life that drove this Yank mad while spending a year in Norwich in the late eighties) and has an incurable patch of self-loathing which makes him perennially cross.
The anatomy of Laura and Rob’s breakup leading him into an existential crisis is what works so well and what makes up the meat of the book. Hornby is so good at capturing the frenetic self-delusional thought processes we go through while we’re not admitting that something is very deeply wrong. Rob has been so used to dealing with his symptoms day by day and music seemed to be a cure-all. The fact that music does nothing for him when he first gets to the shop after the breakup is very telling, as is his violent reaction to Barry’s playing “Walking on Sunshine” (telling and hilarious). This motif is visited again when Laura’s father dies and Rob realizes that in the thousands of songs in his shop, there are none that can really capture what she is feeling. The simple formula with which he held together his psyche in his early adulthood no longer works for him.
As a study in relationships, this may be one-sided, but it is clever, hilarious and refreshingly unsentimental. It is such a dude thing to focus on the person the ex starts seeing rather than why they broke up in the first place. It is a total dude thing to obsess on small stuff to the point of blocking out larger realities. Rob’s making a mix-tape for a journalist he fancies as long-suffering Laura looks on knowingly says more about their relationship than any loving epiphany could provide.
They get back together, not in a romantic moment, but in a miserable moment after Rob has fled her father’s wake and is lying in a garden trying to hide from her. Instead of rushing into each other’s arms, they have a series of miserable conversations; Laura is too tired to not be with him and this is enough for Rob. They realize that they were miserable apart, but the getting together is not easy; no sunshine and flowers. I had forgotten the ending and got to the point in the book where I’d rather they had ended up split; they were so difficult together the rest of their lives seemed like it would become one long wrangle. But Rob has grown so much in the final portion of the book it gives us a small hope that things might work out for them. Laura’s turning down his proposal is hilarious and a relief. We are not left with a “happily ever after” but a pretty good night together and a beautiful moment where they reconnect over the undanceable song which brought them together in the first place.
This book was a great reminder that a fictional relationship works on those real little moments together rather than in sweeping romantic crescendos. It’s also a reminder not to forget the girl, even though it is told through the point of view of the guy. I feel like I have a pretty strong idea of my hero’s voice, but I need to let the reader know a few more niggling personal details about him earlier on. I have, once again, forgotten that he needs to live and breathe beyond his reactions and in fiction I have more room to explore that than I am taking. But my heroine needs serious work and depth. She’s still a bit vague and perhaps it has been in getting to know her as a ghost who has a vague handle on things that has rendered her so. I need to go back in. And I’m thinking a bickering argument between the two in this new arrangement might bring them both to earth a little more solidly.