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Posted on 12 Apr 2024 in Fiction, Flashback Friday |

ROBINNE LEE The Idea of You. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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It’s Flashback Friday: Jessica Stewart reviews Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel of an older woman and a younger man which is getting renewed attention thanks to a film adaptation.

Is there a right way to love? In a thousand ways we are told what is acceptable, ethical, honourable, right. Robinne Lee’s novel asks why we allow ourselves to squash our needs and desires into these boxes of conformity.

Solène Marchand is a 39-year-old co-owner of a stylish mid-size art gallery in Los Angeles, specialising in representing work of women and people of colour. She co-parents her young daughter with her ex, entertainment lawyer Daniel, lives in a beautiful home, travels to Europe regularly on the hunt for new artists and clients, and produces her own art, too, when she has time. When Daniel begs off taking their daughter to a concert with backstage passes thrown in, she steps in and meets Hayes – gorgeous, talented and 20. Her relationship with a singer in the world’s most famous boyband begins.

Lee examines the nature of an illicit relationship: we live in the gaze of others, we are reflected though others’ eyes, we become what they want and are constrained by what they can tolerate. If we step outside the circle of acceptability, we are judged. Solène’s ex is in a relationship with a young woman with whom he is having another baby, and the hypocrisy of older men with younger women comes through loud and clear.

But there is more than the simple reversal here. Lee looks at what it is to be a mother, subjugating our own needs to the care of others. Even the image of the sexy MILF is passive; she is about being fucked, rather than wanting and taking what she wants. Solène wistfully thinks of the things she will teach her 13-year-old daughter:

… that being a mother did not have to mean no longer being a woman. That she could continue to live outside the lines. That forty was not the end. That there was more joy to be had. That there was an Act II, an Act III, an Act IV if she wanted it.

The Idea of You is a pleasurable foray into contemporary art, steeped in allusions and references. Some Lee uses as devices to introduce a theme, such as the invisibility of the older woman, ­­which is interrogated closely – although somewhat undermined by the book’s premise:  beautiful older women are clearly not invisible. Other are scattered as jewels without more explanation, a nod to her readers’ interest and intelligence. The glimpses of the world of the gallery are fun:

She introduced me to the guest she’d been chatting with, an early-thirties male with a man-bun and one of those lumbersexual beards. I did a quick check of the condition of his shoes and fingernails. These days, it was getting harder to tell who the potential buyers were.

There is lots of sex – Hayes’s 20-year-old cock is near constantly alert and Lee is not coy. The first time they make love, Hayes brings her to orgasm through her panties and without reciprocity. He simply wants to pleasure her. Whenever Hayes and Soléne are together, he is lifting the hem of her skirt, fingers trailing up the inside of her thigh, slipping under her thong.

Solène is the complex, layered partner in this relationship, her depth explored by this boy. The allure of the older woman is clear – Solène’s sophistication and intelligence is the polar opposite of the screaming girls surrounding the band members. Hayes’ falling for her isn’t a surprise. Soléne’s taking of pleasure, seeking it out, drinking it in, is a reminder that sex, the physicality, the release, is just as necessary to women of all ages, whether they have children or not, as it is to men. Solène and Daniel have divorced because he could not tolerate her working and being a mother, and then he blames the divorce on her:

‘None of this would have happened, Solène, if —’

‘If what? If I’d just stayed home and been happy? Fuck you, Daniel.’

If women are not having sex, maybe the problem is with the men in their lives?

And in Hayes, Solène sees someone beautiful and generous who adores her. Why can’t this be enough? Lee brings us again and again to ponder whether their relationship can work. Will it? The most urgent complexities are external. His millions of social media followers, the hundreds of thousands of screaming girls (and fanboys) who follow him wherever he goes, his public persona. The cost of Hayes is high and, in the end, it is his megastar fame rather than his youth that is pivotal to Solène’s decisions.

Lee reflects on our cultural attachment to exclusive romantic love whereby a relationship must be either curtailed (because it is illicit) or cemented (if it is not) – a binary which does not serve women. She tells her daughter:

‘Love is this very precious thing, Izz. It’s this precious, magical thing. But it’s not finite. There’s not a limited amount of it out there. You just have to be open to allowing it to find you. Allowing it to happen.’ I was not entirely sure that I believed this, but I needed her to.

Robinne Lee The Idea of You Penguin Books 2021 edition PB 448pp $22.99

The movie of The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine, is streaming on Prime from 2 May 2024.

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy The Idea of You from Abbey’s or from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.



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