Nick Hornby’s novel A Long Way Down is a very different book than In the Midst of Life, but I found it interesting that both books tackle the subject of death and how we navigate life in light of it in a way that can be uncomfortable but also forces the reader to think about the issues.
In A Long Way Down, four characters wind up on a rooftop on New Years Eve intending to end their lives by jumping. One is a washed up talk show host whose slew of bad life choices finally caught up with him and destroyed his reputation, one is a mousy single mother of a profoundly disabled adult child, one is a wild college student who can’t handle her sister’s disappearance, and the last is a 30 year old musician who has at last had to confront the fact that he’s never going to be famous. Having interrupted each other’s plans, this unlikely group makes a pact not to go through with their intentions at present, and over time give each other the hope and connection they were missing individually.
That sounds heavy, and it is, but to offset the subject matter the book is extremely funny. I laughed out loud pretty much the entire time I was reading it. The humor is dark, but in some ways I think it’s easier to deal with questions about life and death when you’re laughing. I should also mention, for those who can’t stand bad language in books, that this one is really, really full of bad language. I think it was used in a funny, character-appropriate way in most cases (versus the sort of bad language that is used for shock value or to make an insecure writer feel Profound) but I know that some people can’t stand it in any way.
I read this book for a book club, and I thought the discussion was really interesting. One of the central themes of the book is that feeling suicidal is subjective–it’s not helpful or germane to ask if the person is really justified in feeling so awful–and it was helpful to talk that through with a group. We got into topics like how to help people who are missing connections, have no hope and nothing to look forward to, and so on, especially when society would probably say that their problems aren’t that bad. Hornby points out in the book that the divide between a person who is doing ok and a person who is suicidal is often not that broad. On the one hand, that’s a little bit scary, but on the other hand, it’s really hopeful.
I enjoyed reading A Long Way Down for the humor, but also found that I got more out of it the more time I thought about it. Although it tackles the subject of life and death in a completely different way than In the Midst of Life did, both books raised interesting questions of what makes life worth living, how our views of life impact the way we think about death, and how we can help those who are still living, as well as those near the end of their lives.
I’d recommend A Long Way Down for a certain type of reader (one who likes British and/or dark humor, and who can gloss over language issues). As a side note, the film version is being released this month but the trailer looked disappointing, as though the story was gutted and replaced with a silly rom com plot. If you have read the book and do see the movie, let me know what you think though!
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