The Idea of You author Robinne Lee on why she’s sick of hearing about Harry Styles

The actor-turned-novelist has seen her bestselling book – about a fling between a single mother and a young pop star that’s only lighted inspired by the One Direction star – become an eagerly anticipated romcom with Anne Hathaway. Olivia Petter meets her

Thursday 02 May 2024 16:31 BST
Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in ‘The Idea of You’
Nicholas Galitzine and Anne Hathaway in ‘The Idea of You’ (Alisha Wetherill/Prime)

Robinne Lee is fed up with hearing the name “Harry Styles”. “It’s very frustrating,” the author of The Idea of You admits over Zoom, referring to how frequently the musician’s name is invoked in discussion of her bestselling book: a tale of an older woman falling in love with a young British boyband star. “In the beginning I thought it was interesting, but it’s taken on a life of its own. I’m like, come on guys! What happened to the 22 other men I used to make this character? It feels very reductive.”

The chatter surrounding Lee’s 2017 novel, which has been adapted into a film streaming on Prime Video this week and starring Anne Hathaway, neatly proves the point the 49-year-old author and actor is trying to make. The Idea of You seems like your run-of-the-mill story about a regular person falling in love with a celebrity – a pop culture trope immortalised by Richard Curtis’s classic romcom Notting Hill, as well as films including Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Music and Lyrics. But by making her protagonist a 40-year-old single mother, Lee subverts the genre, offering up a piece of work that is far less interested in celebrity culture than it is in female sexuality, motherhood and misogyny.

“We write women off at a certain age,” Lee tells me from an ornate living room that looks like it’s been pulled from the pages of House & Garden. Physically poised and bearing an innate sense of calm, the writer is not unlike her leading lady. She says that the book was partly inspired by turning 40 and noticing how differently she was being perceived. “[That age is] just as most of us are coming into our own. But we’re on the downslope because so much of our power is supposedly connected to our youth. Whereas when men turn 40, they continue to gain prestige and power. So, I really wanted to turn that on its head.” It’s not without a heady dose of irony, then, that a book about womanhood has become so intrinsically linked to one man. “Life imitates art in many ways,” sighs Lee.

The Idea of You, which was first published in 2017 and became a TikTok-aided smash in 2020, follows 39-year-old Solène Marchand, an art gallery owner and divorced mother of a 12-year-old girl. Chic, sophisticated and French (Lee is a fully-fledged Francophile), Solène takes her daughter and her friends to Las Vegas for a meet and greet with one of the world’s biggest boybands, August Moon. It’s there that she meets Hayes Campbell, the band’s 20-year-old British frontman with “piercing blue-green eyes and a mass of dark curls”. A clandestine affair ensues, quickly progressing into a full-on relationship that takes the unlikely duo around the world, inevitably spawning tabloid scrutiny once they’re caught out.

The film adaptation is a lot of fun – with The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey praising it for striking a “nice balance between wholesome and sultry” – and does much to stir the romcom genre from its perceived grave. There are steamy sex scenes in hotel suites. Adorable childlike dance sequences. Acerbic one-liners with added bite: “People hate happy women”. Little has been changed from the book except for the ending.

“That was not my decision,” Lee asserts, clarifying that she had little to do with the adaptation, which was written by Michael Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that their conclusion is far less realistic than Lee’s. “I think Hollywood likes a Hollywood ending. I wanted to show how women put others’ happiness before their own. So often, we do that. And I wanted to force people to look at that and discuss it.”

I wonder about Meghan Markle or Kate – when you make that choice, it’s never going to be the same

One of the book’s key talking points is age gap relationships, a subject that is discussed very differently depending on the gender of the older partner. “When the book came out, Donald Trump had just been elected, and it was the same year that Emmanuel Macron was elected as president in France,” recalls Lee, noting the frenzy of articles around the age gap between him and his wife, Brigitte, who is 24 years his senior. “There was not one article about the years between Donald and Melania [Trump]. And they [have] the exact same age difference.”

It’s a comparison that highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of Lee’s book. Solène’s ex-husband, Daniel, left her for a younger woman – only in this dynamic, the societal outrage at an older woman dating a younger man is magnified because of Hayes’ fame. After photographs emerge of the duo together, Solène is eviscerated in the press, with everything from her mothering skills to the way she looks served up on the internet’s brutal chopping block. A particularly poignant scene in the film sees Solène’s daughter Isabelle telling her mother that the boy she liked was texting her for a few weeks, only to wind up saying: “Tell your mum I turn 18 in a month.”

Part of the double standard, I posit, is the fact that female sexuality seems to have an expiry date. “I live in Paris now and the French have a completely different outlook,” Lee says. “The gaze is different, and I wanted that for myself.” While researching for The Idea of You, Lee trawled through literary classics including DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from 1928 and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which was published in 1973. “In some ways you think we’ve moved on and in others we’ve gone back, or I think we’re kind of still stuck.”

‘The French gaze is different, and I wanted that for myself’: author Robinne Lee
‘The French gaze is different, and I wanted that for myself’: author Robinne Lee (Supplied)

While it takes a backseat in comparison to some of its meatier subjects, the book’s other main theme is, of course, fame. Lee is no stranger to Hollywood herself, having had roles in major blockbusters like Hitch, Fifty Shades Darker and 13 Going on 30. Before acting, though, came the management company she started with a friend while they were in college. “We were managing a girl’s group and got one of the New Kids on the Block to produce them,” Lee recalls. “That was when I got to see that world.” It was in this role that she experienced the kind of high-flying backstage access described in the novel. Her feelings about fame have changed since then.

“I feel like privacy is just gone,” she says. “I see people like Harry Styles or Prince Harry, who was one of my other muses for this book, and their lives and how they’re in this bubble.” Lee has witnessed the impact of this bubble first hand while being out with her own friend, and 13 Going on 30 co-star, Jennifer Garner. “She walks in somewhere and everyone notices and shifts away. Then they get really quiet. Then they move towards her and talk louder so that maybe she’ll hear them. It’s really weird.”

Perhaps actors and musicians sign up for that kind of life when they choose that career path. But the people who fall in love with them often do not. “I wonder about Meghan Markle or Kate [Middleton],” Lee adds as our time is coming to an end. “When you make that choice, it’s never going to be the same. It’s like, you can’t fully relax unless you’re home alone. What is that life like?”

‘The Idea of You’ is streaming on Prime Video

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