Book and a movie: "A Long Way Down" by Nick Hornby

Book: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Release date: May 2, 2006

Pages: 368

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Rating: ★★★

In his eagerly awaited fourth novel, New York Times-bestselling author Nick Hornby mines the hearts and psyches of four lost souls who connect just when they've reached the end of the line.

Meet Martin, JJ, Jess, and Maureen. Four people who come together on New Year's Eve: a former TV talk show host, a musician, a teenage girl, and a mother. Three are British, one is American. They encounter one another on the roof of Topper's House, a London destination famous as the last stop for those ready to end their lives.

In four distinct and riveting first-person voices, Nick Hornby tells a story of four individuals confronting the limits of choice, circumstance, and their own mortality. This is a tale of connections made and missed, punishing regrets, and the grace of second chances. 

A punk, a middle-aged woman, a disgraced morning show host and a pizza guy walk onto a roof. The joke is that A Long Way Down, a novel with New Year's Eve suicide as its frame, is a lighthearted, life-affirming read, if not life-changing. What if you wanted to end it all, leap to your end, and someone else was already there? Would it give you pause? Who would jump first? And wouldn't you be just a little curious if someone else's baggage was just as bad, or even worse, than yours?

Martin, a British Matt Lauer who went to prison for sleeping with a 15-year-old, has nothing left to live for after losing his job, his freedom, his family and his reputation. He would have plummeted to his death if not for being interrupted by Maureen, a mother to a disabled son who has no life outside of caring for her child. They're joined by Jess, an intense young woman dealing with the rejection of a former lover, the disappearance of her sister and the looming shadow of her politician father. By the time American JJ arrives with pizza and tells them he has a terminal condition, no one is quite ready to take the leap, so they agree to form a support system and reevaluate whether to end their lives.

What I love about A Long Way Down is what a lot of people will hate about it — how utterly unlikable all the characters are. Martin's full of himself and an accidental child molester. Maureen is spineless, prudish and slightly selfish. Jess is obnoxious. JJ is a shallow, pretentious liar. You could argue that none of them has a good enough reason to kill themselves, or that the world would be better off if they did. Yet Hornby manages to bring a humanity to each of these assholes and turn them into the perfect dysfunctional unit.

In the alternating first-person narrative, each character is brought to vivid life and meditates on the depths of their despair —at times dispassionate, at times sardonic, at times heartbreaking and infuriating. None of them has a compelling reason to stay alive even when their reasons for wanting to die seem thin, and there's no overly sentimental happy ending where all their problems are resolved and tied with a satin bow. And in some ways, that realism is far more hopeful than the cinematic version presented in the film adaptation.

The casting of the movie version is absolutely flawless. Pierce Brosnan brings sleazy charm to Martin. Toni Collette is equal parts sympathetic and awkward as Maureen. Imogen Poots and Aaron Paul bring unexpected depth to Jess and JJ. The film version has much more drama and more ooey gooey moments than the book, which works for a feel-good movie even if it would make for a pretty toothless read. 

I recommend this book and movie double date if you're feeling depressed or cynical and can only stomach so many platitudes. You might not walk away permanently altered, but it might be just enough to bring you back from the ledge.