I got this novel at a book sale ($10 for a huge paper bag of used books? Count me in any day of the week!) and was not sure whether I would like it or not. Then again, this is how I approach any book I read, with a curiosity, not expecting what treasures I am going to uncover when I read the first pages. I love Nick Hornby’s other books (About a Boy, Slam, and How to Be Good) so I expected this one to be equally as awesome as they were.
So the first fifty pages or so I had to go back and reread. Maybe it was because I was sitting at a restaurant at the airport with chatter and ’80s rock music playing in the background and had ordered a $17 (yes, you heard that right, 1-7 bucks with tax) Beyond Meat burger, and was wondering when I would get it in time for my flight (I had an hour and a half to kill, what could possibly go wrong?) Or it was because I was going to miss the city I visited and was already feeling a burning desire to move there permanently even though I only spent a few days there. All I knew was that within 60 pages I was confused. Why were these random people standing on the top of a building. I got that all four of these people in the book were suicidal, but their backstories seemed jumbled. When I got on the plane, I reread a second time. Who was Chas? Then I reread those pages a third time and finally went, Ah, and kept reading. Also, I was reading for fun, whereas if I had been reading this for some class, I would have underlined and highlighted like I was never going to read it again.
Ok, so here is the summary of the book. Four people living in London all lead lives of depression and despair, all brought about by different circumstances. Martin was once a successful TV person who slept with his 15 year old co-star Penny (Martin is a middle aged married man with children) and lost his job and his marriage as a result. Jess’ boyfriend, Chas, is a jerk who doesn’t understand her, and neither do her parents, especially after her mom accuses Jess of stealing her earrings after her sister mysteriously disappears. JJ is a Chicago native who went to England, found love and success with his band, and then died inside when his band broke up and, with them, his girlfriend, leaving JJ with nothing to do but deliver pizzas and read books. Finally, Maureen is suffering because her son has a disability and Maureen feels like she can no longer take care of him since she finds it exhausting. All four of these characters end up meeting on top of a building (literally called Topper House. They explain why in the book, so no spoilers here), and are of course quite annoyed to find each other on the roof. It’s like each of them is thinking, Why can’t all these other people just let me kill myself in peace? However, they end up sorting out why they are going to kill themselves, and then they make plans to resolve the problems that are making them want to commit suicide, such as going with Martin to visit Penny and his ex-wife and getting Chas to apologize to Jess for being such a jerk to her. They set a time period where they won’t go on with their plan to kill themselves, and when they hit Valentine’s Day, the set date, they end up postponing it because they have spent so much time with each other that they find it is pointless to try and kill themselves. Each of the characters also ends up getting their friends and family together to tell them about their depression, showing how the time they spent together helped them feel more comfortable being honest with each other and in turn being honest with other people.
While I found some parts funny, for the most part this book makes a pretty serious commentary on mental health and the ways in which people do and do not talk about it. All of the characters have this feeling that they are alone in their problems and that their friends and family won’t understand why they would want to take their own lives, and that people would be better off without them. Truth is, committing suicide would have just caused more pain and suffering to their friends and family. I have been to hell and back with depression, and I will tell you, it is a living nightmare. Even if you are in a room of people, you can still feel like you’re the only one who is suffering. Even when your life is great, stuff happens and before you know it, your world comes crashing down and even the worst event to happen around the world seems like a field day compared to what you are going through. In Buddhism, we call that life state the world of Hell, where you feel no one can help you, no matter how much help you may get. However, what makes this situation bearable for everyone in the book is the sheer act of showing up for each other. Even though Jess, Martin, JJ and Maureen are all depressed and suicidal, they each show up for one another even if they disagree on a lot of things (for Maureen, it’s the constant f-words and s-bombs that JJ, Jess and Martin throw around) and even if they don’t want to share their backstories with each other at first. If anything, this book has taught me that honest discussions about mental health are not something that happens in a day, and it takes courage to talk honestly about how awful and numb you feel each day. And as someone who went through depression, I can honestly tell you that showing up for someone can do a lot, even when it doesn’t seem like it’s going to cure their depression overnight. I remember people showing up for me even when I closed myself off and didn’t open up about my mental health issues for fear of seeming weak.
The characters also come to understand, through the time they spend with each other, that yes, life is hard, but it’s the imperfections that make life worth living. If everything had been going perfectly in the lives of JJ, Jess, Martin and Maureen, they would probably would not have bonded with each other (and thus Nick wouldn’t have needed to write this book). Especially in an age of social media and constant comparisons (then again, it’s human nature to compare ourselves with others and it has been around since the pre-historic age) this book is more important than ever. Although our society is more connected through social media and smartphones we are lonelier than ever, and a lot of people think that if their life isn’t perfect, that they don’t deserve to keep living. When we actually talk face to face with someone though, oftentimes we see past that facade and get to know people’s lives for who they really are.
A Long Way Down: A Novel. Nick Hornby. 2005. 333 pp.