When Julia Child said, “Every woman should kiss her butcher,” it’s too bad she couldn’t have known the heartthrob of a butcher in “Just Like You,” Nick Hornby’s charming, funny, touching, and relevant comedy. As a new wife, marooned in student housing near Julia’s house, I shopped at the grocery store across the street, home to her butcher. Though deft with a cleaver, this was not a man anyone, except a grateful culinary genius, might want to kiss — the opposite of Hornby’s 22-year-old Joseph, whom the women, queuing up for lamb chops, lustily assess. Next in line, Lucy, 41, a schoolteacher, almost divorced, insists she only wants a baby sitter for her two young sons; after all, “she could have gone to a supermarket … but then she would be Letting Local Shops Down.” Hers is an Islington neighborhood of liberals, who will vote stay in the looming Brexit election, a place where a man apologizes for a special-occasion three-figure order, something he couldn’t afford on a regular basis. As Joseph observes, “the people … weren’t posh, in the sense that they wore jeans and didn’t sound like Prince Charles, but they obviously had money,” a fact that discomforts them.
Not only money but also class (the word that dare not speak its name) is a source of denial. Joseph, who is Black, lives with his mother in Tottenham. Ambitious, he wants what his customers have. Does he long for Lucy? Would she — 20 years older, white, university-educated, a mother — even consider him as a romantic partner? Maybe, since she’d picked the appropriate guy, just like her, who turned out to be an unreliable, violent alcoholic, ensnaring her in a marriage that made her feel “strapped to a railway line while a locomotive bore down on her.”
A few weeks later, Joseph comes to baby sit the night she’s heading out for dinner, fixed-up with a novelist, sporting “an age-appropriate haircut and a neat, speckled-gray beard.” Impressed by Joseph’s sharp-wittedness, competence, and her sons' immediate worship of him, she concedes she could “beat him in a quiz about Jane Austen, but that was about it.”
Soon enough, this mismatched pair is sharing drinks, meals, and bed. Though Joseph recognizes he’s having sex with a woman the same age as his mother and Lucy questions what she’s doing with a twenty-something, they’re nuts about each other. More suitable dates falter. “A beautiful girl wanted to know where his bedroom was, and he didn’t want to tell her,” Joseph admits. Lucy’s middle-aged novelist confesses he’s a bit hit-and-miss in the sex department. What’s more, she and Joseph actually listen to each other and ask questions.
While their domestic life is often blissful, out in the world the blatant issues of race, culture, age, politics, and intellect create a divide. “Her thing with Joseph existed only when they were together, in the same room” where they are “something between brackets.”
Along with the love affair, Hornby covers the issues of the day with snappy take-no-prisoners commentary. His wry observations range from people’s views on Brexit (unlike Lucy’s community, “none of [Joseph’s] neighbors were voting in”), dyeing one’s hair (which Lucy plans to keep doing, in contrast to her gray-braided, Birkenstock-shod fellow citizens), education (“surely one of the points of sending one’s children to state secondary school was that you could dump the parents of the kids they used to play with when they were younger”), and Lucy’s horror at the election of Trump. On every page, racial tensions abound. Joseph accuses Lucy of racism when she assumes he must know plenty of people with good voices; a neighbor calls the police after Joseph knocks too hard at Lucy’s door. At least, Joseph explains, they’re not in America: “Over there, they kill you.”
And, of course, because this is a Nick Hornby novel, there’s plenty of music: jazz, rock, Joseph’s songwriting and DJing gigs. In addition to the gulf between Lucy and Joseph’s musical tastes, her dancing, Joseph notes, though not bad, “was the wrong kind of dancing.”
Throughout, the plot twists and turns; the reader laughs and winces. Joseph meets someone; Lucy again sees the middle-aged novelist. Yet, despite intervening trysts, love flourishes. Is it time for Lucy and Joseph to go out in the world together? To visit her parents in Kent? To meet his mother in Tottenham? The author constructs wonderful comic scenes, funny and tender at the same time. Joseph treats Lucy to a Shakespeare play. Not that boring, he grants, though the only Black people in the audience are two girls. They attend a dinner party, Joseph’s first, spend an evening with Joseph’s friends at a club, Lucy’s first; they turn up at Joseph’s sister’s wedding. He starts to introduce her as his girlfriend. As these scenes build toward a surprising, well-earned ending, Hornby continues to ask: Should we choose someone just like us, or take a risk?
My only quibble, among such pleasures, lies in certain passages of dialogue, however crackling, that are unattributed, forcing me to backtrack to figure out which lines belong to what speaker, a slight irritation that, on occasion, interrupted the flow. Nevertheless, even if, upon finishing, readers might still not want to kiss their butchers, they’ll be all too willing to plant a smooch on the author of this delicious, prime-cut, filet mignon of a novel.
JUST LIKE YOU
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead, 368 pp., $27
Mameve Medwed’s sixth novel, “Minus Me,” will be published in January. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.