Review: It Had To Be You
James is a man whose life of quiet desperation seems to be heading towards ignominy. MD of the London office of troubled British packing company Globpack UK, burdened by a spectacularly inept PA, he is under pressure from his American boss, Dwight Shenkman the Third, to lay off staff – and he uses corporate trips as cover to cheat on his wife. The strands of his wider family life provide no comfort: an estranged daughter he is desperate to see, over-achieving siblings and a constantly disappointed mother. But then his wife Deborah suddenly and tragically dies in a car accident, and the circumstances of her death throw up all kinds of questions about the life he thought he was living.
The loss of Deborah – and the uncomfortable scrutiny that all his relationships are suddenly subjected to – gives Nobbs scope to bring many of his favourite themes to the fore. Nobbs excels in the tortured, flawed, fifty-something British male – basically decent, but adrift somewhat in the changing values and absurdities of modern life. There are some splendid diatribes against some of Nobbs’ favourite targets: banal TV radio commentators, call centres and organised religion. And of course Reggie Perrin is always lurking in the background (for Dwight, read CJ?). But what elevates this book way above a grumpy old man ‘guilty pleasure’ is the emotional depth of the characters – and a genuinely compelling mystery that gets murkier, and creepier, as the book progresses.
As we approach the funeral, many of James’ relationships undergo profound changes, and what Nobbs does particularly well is to examine the arc of love over many decades. The result is unexpectedly touching and – through several women who have played a role in his life – an unexpected love story emerges, but it isn’t what you might think.
Nobbs seems has actually written a book about things that matter. Unfashionable things like loyalty, respect and unsung heroes of working life. There is plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and (incidentally) if you had any doubts about the urgency of preventing climate change, there is, through the character of his son Max, one of the most powerful and succinct arguments I think I’ve ever read.
Despite its focus on flawed human behaviour and tragedy, it is actually a hugely uplifting book, full of hope.