Two nights ago, my husband was reading The Time Traveler’s Wife (see my review) and I was reading Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down. He spent the evening crying, and I spent the evening laughing, and by the time we fell asleep we’d both finished our respective books.
A Long Way Down is a book about four wildly different people who meet one another en route to ending it all. Jess is a somewhat manic teenager with some serious impulse control issues, even more serious reasons for her off-kilter state, and a sweet if misguided heart. JJ is the token American, a failed musician played in my mind by John Cusack as seen in High Fidelity. Martin is a disgraceful fallen celebrity, who fights redemption at every step, and yet somehow never quite does away with our sympathy. And Maureen is possibly the most realistic of the bunch, the single mother of a severely disabled child, desperate and at the end of her rope, who just wants a real life (and possibly the heart of the man who gave her the life she has).
The foursome meet atop a notorious suicide spot, spoiling one another’s dark moods, and agree to the first of what turns out to be an effective chain of delays. Jess, who seems to have the least reason to die, is the most determined to do so; the other three do what they can to keep her from wasting the majority of her life. (Later, of course, we learn that her motivation to die is greater than initially believed.) Outside of their conscious control, the quartet form a bond that gets them through the night, lands them in the tabloids, puts them on bad afternoon television, brings their personal dramas to a head, and, ultimately, saves – in a matter of speaking – their lives.
That “of course” in the previous paragraph is telling. A Long Way Down is slightly predictable, and there’d be no harm done if I told you exactly how it ended. Let’s just say fewer people die in this book than do in Harry Potter. The most interesting thing is, as I said before, the character of Maureen. Hornby so perfectly captures her character that I half-thought I was reading about a real woman. He paints with relatively few strokes, but what he tells, tells everything. Because of Maureen, this book is a hopeful book rather than just a dark comedy.
Having said that, I struggle to come up with A Long Way Down’s “point.” The first thing that springs to mind is that it’s a comment on suicide, and that people really oughtn’t to kill themselves because they might find that the chaos of their lives really is controllable with the right help/changes/attitude. Then again, I suspect that another reader might get the exact opposite idea from this story. I keep coming back to the title, wondering what exactly it is supposed to mean (beyond the obvious). To my mind, it reinforces my initial hypothesis: jumping from a ten-story building is, in fact, a long way down, and mightn’t you have time to regret it?
Ultimately, this book is worth reading if only for the laugh-out-loud lines masterfully sprinkled throughout the book, particularly in the first half. Hornby’s knack for gallows humor is enviable. Kudos also to the designer of the book cover; they say you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their shoes, and the cover speaks volumes about the characters.