47 pages 1 hour read

Nick Hornby

A Long Way Down

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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A Long Way Down is a 2005 novel by international best-selling British author Nick Hornby. This dark comedy incorporates themes of existentialism and mental illness, including suicide and depression, in Hornby’s signature upbeat style. The novel follows four characters in a first-person, round-robin style narration in which each character advances the plot in succession.

The story takes place in modern-day England. The four main characters—Martin, Maureen, JJ, and Jess—meet each other for the first time on New Year’s Eve. The foursome unexpectedly comes together on the roof of Toppers’ House, a popular suicide spot. Martin and Maureen arrive first and begin to talk about why they are there. Eighteen-year-old Jess appears and rushes for the edge. Unwilling to see someone so young kill herself, Martin grabs her and sits on her until she calms down. JJ arrives with several pizzas, asking who called for them, but then reveals that he is also there to jump off the roof. The four of them begin talking and agree to postpone their suicides for six weeks, until Valentine’s Day.

Martin is a middle-aged, former morning TV personality. Disgraced after sleeping with a 15-year-old he believed was older, he spent three months in prison and lost his family during what erupted into a tabloid scandal. By New Year’s Eve, he has lost his show, his self-respect, and his reasons for living. Maureen is 51 and finds the burden of caring for her adult, disabled son, Matty, intolerable and suffocating. Jess is mentally ill and wants to jump because her boyfriend Chas dumped her without an explanation. JJ, a 26-year-old American, was a former musician whose band broke up. His girlfriend left him at the same time.

Over the next six weeks, the four stay in contact and find that the urge to kill themselves is waning. They start a short-lived book club in which they only read books by authors who killed themselves. They get to know each other better and find a bond in their shared misery. They soon realize that they feel like they are unsuited to spend time with anyone but each other, given that only they understand the depths of the misery to which they had sunk on New Year’s Eve.

On Valentine’s, they meet on the roof to discuss how they are feeling. They notice a man on the ledge and try to talk him out of jumping, but he goes over the edge and dies. The next morning, the four meet in a pub. Collectively, they realize they weren’t suicidal in the same way as the man they watched died. Martin tells them he read an article by a suicidologist who suggests that every potential suicide needs to wait ninety days and let the crisis pass. They agree to give their lives ninety days. In the meantime, they take Maureen on a holiday to the Canary Islands—her first since before Matty was born.

When they return, Jess stages an intervention. She invites loved ones and estranged friends and family members to help the group move past suicide. The intervention ends badly, with Martin mocking the handsome male nurse who is pushing Matty, all in view of his ex-wife and two daughters.

By the end of the novel, Maureen has realized that her son is not the burden she had felt she was. An unexpected job offer helped her come to this realization. JJ begins to play music again, although he does not reunite with his former band. Martin begins tutoring a learning-challenged 8-year-old in reading, hoping that sticking it out will help him regain his self-respect. Jess begins to realize that if she can learn to see her life—and her mental illness—with clarity and honesty, there might be hope for her future.