Author: Nick Hornby
Original Publication: 1995
I saw the movie version of this book first, and sought out the novel not only because I am a music geek, but also marginally dysfunctional and fond of lists. The movie follows the book rather closely, so if you liked one, you will likely enjoy the other. The major difference between the two is that the movie version appears to be set in the United States, while the novel takes place in London.
Rob Fleming is an aging hipster who owns a record store and runs it with his fellow music aficionado and socially inept employees, Dick and Barry. Rob is a stereotypical brilliant slacker type, who has done little of note with his life. All aspects of his life are comfortable if not remarkable – his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Laura; his apartment, the success (or lack thereof) of his business, his musical endeavors. Everything is going just well enough that Rob is too complacent to risk changing anything, and just dull and mediocre enough for him to be terminally dissatisfied. Rob amuses himself by obsessively organizing his massive record collection, in orders that make sense only to him. His other way of compartmentalizing his life into manageable chunks is to make mental “top five” lists of everything. Dick and Barry gleefully indulge in this, seeing it as a way to showcase their musical elitism.
When Laura leaves him for their upstairs neighbor, Rob self-destructs, even while simultaneously surprised that their breakup doesn’t upset him more than it does. He swings between depression and the feverish re-organization of his music collection, and makes a list of his top five breakups in terms of how badly he was crushed. He feels somewhat better to note that Laura does not make the list, and surmises that if Laura had wanted to hurt him that badly, she should have gotten to him sooner. It’s an interesting theory – Rob ponders the idea that relationships you enter into as an adult have less emotional impact on you than the ones in your youth, because they cannot be so many of the things that previous relationships can. Someone who appears later in your life can’t ever be your first relationship, your first kiss, your first time, your first unrequited love, the first to ever leave you, etc. If you have been through something before, it can’t ever wreak the devastation that it did the first time it happened to you, when the wounds of such a slight were a fresh insult to the psyche. By the time you are an adult, you have already used up all of your youthful misguided passion.
Using a device which has been employed countless times in such stories, Rob decides to revisit each of the women who made the list of his top five breakups and discuss the reasons that it ended with each of them. The results are fairly enlightening, and Rob begins to rediscover his own autonomy and the ambition he had when he was just himself. He begins to open up to the potential friendships in his life, and hate himself a little less. Using a breakup as a means to self-discovery is certainly not a ground-breaking setup for a story, but this one is witty, endearing, and well-done.
Fun Fact: The 2000 movie starred John Cusack as Rob, and Jack Black as Dick. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Watching High Fidelity, I had the feeling I could walk out of the theater and meet the same people on the street — and want to, which is an even higher compliment.” Nick Hornby is also responsible for About A Boy, another charming novel-turned-movie.
Bother If: I really enjoyed this novel, as I imagine any lover of music or slightly disgruntled Gen-Xer would. Rob is a great character, and Dick and Barry, the “musical moron twins”, are hysterical. I found myself making mental top five lists of my own and ranking my own breakups. I can see this book appealing in particular to men in their late twenties to early forties, and to most musicians and pop culture junkies. I would also venture to guess that most people have known a character like Rob – that is, eccentric and malcontented despite their refusal to do anything to improve their lives – if not having gone through a similar phase themselves.
Don’t Bother If: I won’t tag this section as spoilers, because if you’re reading the novel and wondering if Rob will get back together with Laura, you’re missing the entire point of the story. My only criticism was that for a guy who is reasonably apathetic about the breakup in the first place, and while is pretty neurotic but with no really crippling self-esteem issues, he does get back together with Laura at the end. She says she is “too tired not to be with him” in the wake of her father’s sudden death. That’s not a good enough reason for me, and I felt that it was an insult to Rob’s character to take her back. You don’t fall in love with them as a couple (she leaves in the first chapter), you never get a sense of either of them treating one another very well, and their ending up back together left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. Nonetheless, it was a good story and save for that particular detail, I liked it very much.