Sunday, March 22, 2009

Book Review: A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down, written by Nick Hornby, who also wrote Fever Pitch, About A Boy, and High Fidelity, is told from the perspectives of four people who happen to meet on New Year's Eve on the roof of the Toppers' House--intending to jump to their deaths. Each of them has a different reason: Martin, a former TV morning talk show host who was convicted of statutory rape; Maureen, who is the sole caretaker of her severely-disabled adult son (and has been for his entire life); J.J., a musician and the only American, who has broken up with both his band and his British girlfriend (and is mostly upset about the breakup of his band); and Jess, a seriously messed-up young woman with no impulse control whatsoever.

Maureen arrives on the roof as Martin is sitting on the edge, smoking, and contemplating his final act. When Jess rushes up to the roof, heading straight for the edge, Martin tackles her, and he and Maureen pin her down to prevent her from committing suicide. J.J. arrives with a pizza. The story follows them around as they form an unlikely bond and learn how each of them happened to arrive on the rooftop that fateful night.

And, in their own warped ways, they try to solve the problems that brought them to the edge, although it's not that each individual tries to fix what's wrong in their own life. That wouldn't be funny enough. Three of them try to fix the problems of the fourth, in a kind of rotation, although Jess is usually the catalyst.

There is definitely a British sensibility to all of this, along with the black humor. And some very substantial issues are discussed: what does it mean to be a mother, a father, a husband? What obligations does one individual have to another? How do the mundane, everyday choices one makes in life affect what happens later? What is one willing to sacrifice for love? How does one define oneself? How do subjects left undiscussed come back to haunt?

The story alternates among the first-person voices of each of the characters and very often key events are told from several different perspectives. Each voice is clearly labeled and has its own vocabulary and tone, so you know who is speaking. Mr. Hornby makes this technique work and it serves the story well.

The ending is pretty true to life: rather vague and open-ended. The characters are not the same people they were at the beginning, yet the changes are subtle. Each has moved out of the small circle of themselves and been forced into a wider world. Overall, they still are who they are, but their perspective has changed. And isn't that what happens to most of us over time?

On the March Hare scale: 3.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.

crossposted at the Mad Tea Party

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