The steadily increasing success of The Idea of You is in many ways not that surprising—not just because of Styles’s ballooning celebrity, but because it is a 362-page, sensual salve from the pandemic. It turns out there is no escapism like reading about a nearly middle-aged woman embarking on a glittering, global love affair with a thoughtful young sex god. The Idea of You is full of bougie, vicarious travel—from the South of France to Paris to Japan—along August Moon’s world tour route.
No fewer than three Harry-obsessed friends urged me to read The Idea of You. “Prepare your heart,” one warned. I failed to, staying up past 2 a.m. on a school night, listening to the audiobook (read by Lee, whose voice is appropriately sultry). After finishing it, bereft, I called said friend to process, needing to remind myself that the characters weren’t real. I promptly sent copies to two more friends, and urged another to read it. (Days later, she texted me from the airport, blaming me for getting her aroused in public.)
Such an affecting book—no matter the genre—deserved greater mainstream notoriety. But The Idea of You is also rooted in socio-cultural commentary about aging and a woman’s worth. “This was never supposed to be a book about Harry Styles,” Lee told me. Nor was it ever intended as a classic, fuzzy romance.“It was supposed to be a story about a woman approaching 40 and reclaiming her sexuality and rediscovering herself, just at the point that society traditionally writes women off as desirable and viable and whole.”
After two decades in Hollywood, Lee, now 46, knew what it was like to be marginalized. Auditions waned; roles shifted. “You’re no longer the hot one. You’re not the girlfriend. You’re not even the hot wife now. You’re the mom,” she said. “It really broke my spirit, and I was angry about it, and so a lot of that went into this book.” A fictional artist at Soléne’s gallery wins raves for a video-installation “exploring how women of a certain age cease to be seen.” Soléne’s ex-husband remarries; Hollywood tropes would have had her eating Ben and Jerry’s under the covers, in mourning. Instead, she is the elder in a May-December relationship, with a youthful Botticelli angel ministering to her on a yacht in Anguilla. It’s electric, triumphant, to read.
In Soléne, Lee gives voice to a sometimes unspeakable restlessness among women and mothers in particular: “I wish I didn’t have to be this pillar of strength,” Lee said. Sometimes, “you want to just live the way you’ve lived when you were in college, or your early twenties, when you freedom and you never have to think of anyone but yourself.”