British novelist Nick Hornby's newest book, "Just Like You," is a character driven examination of the unlikely romance between Lucy, a white 41-year-old nearly divorced mother of two preteen boys, and Joseph, a Black 22-year-old working multiple jobs as he tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life.
Hornby often uses his books to explore social mores and to get readers to examine their own prejudices, so if a 19-year age gap gives you pause, take a moment to think of all the books, movies and real-life relationships featuring older men and much younger women, at which society bats nary an eyelash.
Set in 2016 against the backdrop of the upcoming Brexit vote, Lucy, head of the English department at her local comprehensive school, is adjusting to life as a single mother and just dipping her toe back into dating. In need of someone to watch her boys, she discovers Joseph, who works Saturday mornings at the local butcher shop also frequently babysits for an acquaintance of Lucy's, so she hires him.
Joseph is using all of his jobs: Saturdays at the butcher's, coaching and reffing soccer games, providing regular after-school care for a set of twins, working three mornings a week at the leisure center and DJ-ing at local clubs (the job that he enjoys most), to avoid having to make a decision about a future he fears he'll be stuck with. An encounter with a former teacher who describes his numerous jobs as "portfolio working"— which sounds hip and cutting edge — allows Joseph to present his employment situation as intentional rather than haphazard and indecisive.
As Lucy goes on blind dates with men her own age, she's discouraged by the need to exchange sad marital histories over dinner as she and her dates size each other up for potential future happiness. If she can't find sexual attraction and intellectual stimulation, she's just going to give up on the whole thing.
However, as her conversations with Joseph expand beyond the usual end-of-the-night back and forth between babysitter and parent, they both feel sparks they weren't expecting and aren't necessarily happy about. Eventually, they give in to their feelings, and we follow them through the ups and downs of their unexpected romance.
Hornby writes great dialogue that feels real and awkward and is often quite funny. I enjoyed getting to know Joseph and Lucy as they got to know each other and had their assumptions about the other challenged. Their unfolding relationship is endearing, yet there's an edge to it as well as they face racism, ageism, classism and skepticism from family and friends.
I recommend "Just Like You" if you enjoy novels with insightful observations about the human condition and reading about regular people trying to make their way in a complicated, messy world.
Lisa Sanning is the adult services librarian at Missouri River Regional Library.