In Just Like You, the eighth novel from Nick Hornby, the bestselling author (of About a Boy and High Fidelity) and screenwriter, a 42-year-old white English teacher falls in love with a 22-year-old African-American man in the months before the EU referendum. It’s a perky, north London-set romcom that poses the question – against the polarising glare of Brexit – of what ties two people together.
Lucy, a mother-of-two separating from her addict ex-husband, is dipping a toe back into the dating pool. Joseph, who works in the fancy local butcher (as well as at a leisure centre, as a football coach, babysitter and, less successfully, DJ), lives with his mum, stuck "somewhere between childhood and whatever permanent adulthood might bring". Lucy asks him to babysit; each develops an intense crush on the other; they begin a relationship. Predatory middle-aged women, liberal-elite racial faux pas, marshy views on Brexit and, above all, the age difference compete to be the thing that pushes them apart.
Their relationship is "delicate, like a houseplant, with no ability to survive out in the world".
Hornby, a master of the comedy of insecurity, is on top form when it comes to the pregame part of the romance. The pair’s mental tangles are sweetly funny, such as Joseph finding Lucy’s use of punctuation in texts sexy, while trying not to think about how she’s the same age as his mother. Lucy, meanwhile, sees a warped reflection of her attraction to Joseph in her frenemy Emma’s vocal lust for the young black man: "Was she somehow drawn to Joseph because of his race? Oh, ... If nothing else, he would provide her with an opportunity to think and double-think and doubt and beat herself up every second the affair lasted."
Along the way are spot-on social observations, usually of middle-class hang-ups, such as Lucy’s fear of "Letting Local Shops Down", or Joseph noting that his customers "obviously had money, and sometimes that seemed to create some kind of embarrassment". There are awkward run-ins with exes, a superbly choreographed text-fight on a train and at least one joke – extraordinary in its actual funniness – about Viagra.
Special skewering is reserved for Hornby’s metropolitan elite and their racial blind spots. Lucy bristles at insensitive comments – quipping to Emma: "I can see that, of the three black faces available to you in your memory bank, he probably looks most like a young Denzel Washington" – but then tells Joseph how he ought to react after he is racially profiled by a police officer. So far, so satirical, but a white author inhabiting the mind of a black man as he thinks about race won’t sit well with everyone – and, perhaps, dates the book even more than the preoccupation with Brexit.
The novel’s – and its central relationship’s – inflection point comes with the EU vote. Lucy is a staunch Remainer; Joseph has no clue what he thinks. He’s confused by the "of course" that follows people’s chosen stance, and bemused by the nebulousness of their explanations – "I feel European, you know". Lucy, examining the baselessness of her own convictions, realises that more than anything else, she’s in opposition to the other side: "the people she loathed were all on the other team". She considers challenging her Remain-voting neighbours, but "she didn’t want them to think she didn’t belong".
With wit and warmth, Hornby reflects on what makes a person belong to a country, a generation, a social group; and above all, what makes a person belong to another person. When difference carries more weight than similarity, when, as Joseph thinks, "There isn’t a single way in which we’re ‘us’", Just Like You asks softly, hopefully: "Could you only love someone who thought the same way as you, or were there other bridges to be built further up the river?"
The Daily Telegraph