State of the Union by Nick Hornby: Love on the rocks, Ain’t no surprise

State of the UnionState of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts

by Nick Hornby


Paperback, 132 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2019

Read: June 4, 2019

           [Louise says,] “Underneath it all, I love you.”

“Underneath it all.”

“Yes.”

“Great.”

“To be honest, I think you should be happy with that. You’re lucky there’s anything still there.”

Tom and Louise are in trouble — they’ve been married for years, have kids, and on the outside seem to be doing fine. But the marriage is in trouble — and it has been for awhile. Recent events have demonstrated just how bad the situation is, and Louise has talked Tom into counseling. Each week before their session, they meet in the pub across the street for a quick drink and to talk about what they’ll discuss in the upcoming session — also reacting to the previous session, what’s gone on in the week since, and discuss their future — if such exists.

Ten sessions. Ten very short chapters. More than 10 pints and glasses of white wine. 10 fantastic, intriguing, character revealing, entertaining conversations.

I guess I tipped my hand a bit there, didn’t I? It’s not much of a surprise that I loved this book because it’s written by Nick Hornby. And even when I’m not crazy about the novel in the end, there are few writers out there I enjoy reading as much as Hornby (alas, most of his novels predate this here blog, so you’ll have to take my word for it).

But it’s Hornby that takes what could be a maudlin exercise, a too-jokey experience, or an all-around failure and turns it into an experiment that’s successful, entertaining, and emotionally rich. I see Tom’s point of view, understand his pain and get his reluctance to do the work he needs to. I also understand Louise’s take, I get (don’t approve of, but get) her reaction to Tom, and appreciate her willingness to do the work (while seeing her own weaknesses — at least some of them). A lot of times in this kind of scenario, the reader will end up “taking the side” of one of the characters (frequently the one sharing their gender). But very quickly I noticed that I wasn’t rooting for Tom or Louise here, I was rooting for Tom and Louise.

But best of all? I loved reading their conversations — open, honest (an honesty borne from realizing they’ve got no choice at this point, what could would anything else do?) full of that love that’s “underneath it all” for both. And somehow, still entertaining for the reader.

I typically limit myself to one quotation from a book, but I there’s another I want to share to give a flavor for the way the book works on the mechanical level.

           “How are new starts possible?” Louise says. “When you’ve been together for a long time, and you have kids, and you’ve spent years and years being irritated by the other person? But if they stop being irritating, they’re not them anymore.”

“My text was me not being me.”

“Exactly.”

They walk to the door.

“So I’ve got to stay as me.”

“Yes.”

“While at the same time being different, somehow.”

“It’s a conundrum.”

One, count ’em, one dialogue tag. Five words of description. Which is pretty typical of the book (maybe a little heavy on the description). That’s practically nothing — and dialogue tags pretty much only show up after description so you know who’s starting the back and forth — it could easily be a page or more before the next one. It’s like Hornby’s version of an acoustic recording — a story stripped down to its essence. Maybe that’s not the best metaphor — it’s the literary equivalent of espresso, the bare minimum, concentrated. Ian Shane called it “a literary play.” I like that, too.

The minimalism makes this a deceptively quick and easy read — you start flying through the text, caught up in the conversation and then realize just what it was they’re being breezy about, just in time for a line that emphasizes just what’s at stake.

This was also a show on Showtime recently — ten 10-minute episodes, as I understand. I don’t know which came first — the show or the book. If it was the book, I don’t know that a script would really be necessary — just hand them this book and say “go.” And if it was the other way around, it’d be about the easiest adaptation from a script ever.

At the end of the day, this is exactly what you want from a Nick Hornby book (except the length — I wanted more, always): funny, heartfelt, charming, (seemingly) effortless, and makes you feel a wide range of emotions without feeling manipulated. I loved it, I think you will, too.

Note: I won a copy of this from Riverhead Books via Goodreads — and I thank them both for that. But my library got me a copy first, so I haven’t read it yet. But it will be the copy I re-read (and I think I’ll be doing that a lot).

—–

4 1/2 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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Review Catch Up: The Rosie Project; Where’d You Go, Bernadette; The Rosie Effect; Funny Girl

I’m hitting another block when trying to talk about the last few books I’ve read, because here’s another batch of very overdue takes on some good books (and one not).

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project

by Graeme Simsion
Series: Don Tillman, #1
Hardcover, 304 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2013
Read: November 6, 2013


This was charming, witty, and had plenty of heart — even without the romance, which just took it all to another level. It was just plain fun to read.

Don Tillman is just a great character — he’s likely someone with Asperger’s, if not fully Autistic. Which is mentioned once or twice, and then not brought up again. He’s then treated as a stubborn, curious, character with behavior patterns no one can seem to understand, but most people in his life figure out hot to cope with. Sometimes they laugh at him, sometimes they get frustrated or angry. What he’s not treated as is someone with anything. He’s not treated by his symptoms, he’s just treated as this guy. Simsion’s treatment of Don reminds me of Abed Nadir, from Community (which is high praise from me).

The only complaint I had was that the last chapter wasn’t really needed, and maybe would’ve been best left to the imagination. But, setting that aside, it felt rushed, while the rest of the book was so well done, it just stuck out like a sore thumb.

Still, whatever — one of my favorite books of 2013, and still one of the best RomComs I can remember.
5 Stars

Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette

by Maria Semple

Hardcover, 330 pg.
Little, Brown and Company, 2012
Read: January 01 – 02, 2014

Do you get seasick? People who don’t get seasick have no idea what it’s like. It’s not just nausea. It’s nausea plus losing the will to live.

I should get that embroidered on something.

This starts light and breezy, a little strange, a little typical “these crazy (white) suburbanites with too much money”; but you know it’s going to get dark eventually — probably nasty dark, but first it’s going to lull you into a false sense of fun. I don’t think it gets as dark as it felt like it could’ve, it didn’t need to, and I’m glad it didn’t — but there was a whole lot going on that the whacky beginning didn’t indicate.

You don’t have care about the story because these characters are strength enough to carry your attention for quite awhile with nothing happening — and Semple’s style is just as strong. But there is a story here, a story of a daughter discovering just who her mother was — as is — a story about a talented woman who ended up loving a life she’d never have expected or picked for herself or her family. So you do care about the story — especially the way it’s told, in bits and pieces, jumping back and forth through time, from multiple perspectives — particularly when you get two or three perspectives painting a picture of an event — as Bee digs into her investigation.

Fun story, quirky characters, well-told story, with plenty of heart — and too many quotable lines. I jotted down a few that I can’t resist sharing, even in this abbreviated post.

You probably think, U.S./Canada, they’re interchangeable because they’re both filled with English-speaking, morbidly obese white people. Well, Manjula, you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Americans are pushy obnoxious, neurotic, crass — anything and everything — the full catastrophe as our friend Zorba might say. Canadians are one of that. . . To Canadians, everyone is equal. Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD, John Candy is no funnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would be flattened under an avalanche of equality.

Really, who wants to admit to her daughter that she was once considered the most promising architect in the country, but now devotes her celebrated genius to maligning the driver in front of her for having Idaho plates?”

4 Stars

The Rosie EffectThe Rosie Effect

by Graeme Simsion
Series: Don Tillman, #2

Hardcover, 352 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2014
Read: January 12 – 13, 2015

“To the world’s most perfect woman.” It was lucky my father was not present. Perfect is an absolute that cannot be modified, like unique or pregnant. My love for Rosie was so powerful that it had caused my brain to make a grammatical error.

Don and Rosie are living in New York, getting used to married life, and expecting a kid. None of which goes well — so, of course, Don tries to tackle things the same way he did in the last book. Instant sequel, just add water.

This sequel was written with the same wit and skill as The Rosie Project, but the story wasn’t there — and more importantly, neither was the heart.

Mostly, I think, because Rosie wasn’t around for a lot — and when she was there, she wasn’t a character, she was an obstacle.

Other than really liking the occasional line (maybe more than occasional), I just didn’t like how Rosie or Don were written, the plot was shoddy and contrived, and I was just glad to be done with it so I could move on.
2 Stars

Funny GirlFunny Girl

by Nick Hornby

Hardcover, 452 pg.
Riverhead Books, 2015
Read: February 7, 2015

How on earth could he love her? But he did, Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad, and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but “love” would have to do for now.

Everything I know about this era of British culture and TV comes from The Hour and An Adventure in Space and Time, so I just have to trust that Hornby did his homework on this. I thought the behind-the-scenes stuff was great, it felt real — it felt like the kinds of conversations that writers and actors should be having anyway.

The love story turned out a lot different than I was sure it would – thankfully. Actually, most of the book did. This wasn’t the rags-to-riches-to-wreck story that it seemed like it was going to be, but a story of some people with dreams and talent doing what they could to get going in a cutthroat business. Dreams were chased, many were caught, others changed/grew — as did the dreamers.

In the midst of the discussions about the nature of their show and the stories they told — both during the making of the show Barbara (and Jim) and in later chapters where it was being looked back at, I kept wondering if tucked away in all that was an apologia for light fiction like Hornby writes? If so, I appreciated it. (it also reminded me of some similar comments John Cleese has made lately, after coming to terms with being someone who makes people laugh, and not saving the world or something grander)

Thoughtful, heartfelt, charming — this is Hornby at his most confident and mature. I can see why some aren’t liking it, but it really clicked for me.

4 1/2 Stars