"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Book Review: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

I didn't have much familiarity with Nick Hornby going into A Long Way Down except for an enjoyment of the movie version of About a Boy and knowledge of the cult surrounding works like High Fidelity. A Long Way Down started with great possibilities, but these remained largely unfulfilled. There were funny parts, and touching parts, and thoughtful parts, but these were counterbalanced with some boring parts and depressing parts.

The story follows four people who come together on New Year's Eve at a popular suicide spot in London. Obviously, all four of them mean to kill themselves, but meeting and seeing each other changes the courses of things and their lives begin to intertwine and go in unexpected directions.

The characters are diverse, from a punkish teenage girl to the prim mother of a handicapped child. I liked the relationships all four formed with each other, how they talked to one another, and how their feelings were expressed. As well, I liked how the plot was laid out, jumping from perspective to perspective as it progressed along, without too much recapping and over-explanation.

Here's the gang: Martin is an ex-talk show host who thinks his prison sentence for having slept with a 15-year-old is unfair because he was "not a criminal" but "a television performer who made a mistake." Maureen is a mother whose adult life has been taken up by the needs of her disabled son. Jess is eighteen going on eight, a rebel without a clue who peppers her every sentence with four-letter words. Finally, J. J., the obligatory American in the mix, is a washed-up musician whose bathroom library extends to Richard Yates and Pauline Kael. None of these people have a compelling reason for taking his or her own life, but there were times I was close after putting up with these whiners for 333 pages.

As for Hornby's meditations on suicide and soldiering on with life, well, I will give him credit for not going down the stereotypical route, for showing that it's not easy and everything doesn't turn up rosy even if you don't want to kill yourself anymore. But none of this felt very deep to me. As much as I understood the characters' situations, I didn't feel them, I didn't feel their desperation and their reasons, I didn't see the emotion behind the decision.

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