In the absence of actual travel in 2020, there is a journey on which newly-minted Harry Styles fans can still embark. Maybe you’ve been wooed by the technicolor orgy of the “Watermelon Sugar” video, or the resplendent Gucci dress moment. You’ve tumbled down the YouTube and TikTok rabbitholes, bought an official “Treat People with Kindness” water bottle, downloaded the Calm app to hear his throaty voice lull you to sleep (though some people find it sensual to the point of distraction). And, somewhere along the way, on the advice of at least two friends, you pick up Robinne Lee’s The Idea of You, the three-year-old romance novel inspired—at least in part—by Styles, and lose whatever was left of your mind.
With How Stella Got Her Groove Back vibes and Fifty Shades of Grey quantities of (deftly-written) sex, The Idea of You, originally published in 2017, is about Soléne, a sophisticated, French-born art gallerist and 39-year-old, divorced L.A. mom who, improbably, falls for Hayes Campbell, the 20-year-old British frontman of her teen daughter’s favorite boy band, August Moon. Hayes is uncommonly kind and dimpled, possessing a face insured by Lloyd’s of London that Soléne likens to a Botticelli angel. Sound familiar?
Along with the explosion of Styles’s fandom this year, The Idea of You is experiencing a resurgence. Sales of the book increased 20 percent over 2019, according to St. Martin’s Press, but have climbed every year since its publication, making it a bonafide sleeper hit. It has found an obsessive online fanbase—the self-anointed #HaySolNuts (a mash-up of the main lovers’ names)—fueling a passionate word-of-mouth campaign. The book has inspired a private fan group on Facebook (described as “virtual wine and chocolate” by one member), a dedicated fan club helmed by a Elle UK editor, August Moon tour t-shirts, and virtual maps documenting the haunts and hotels (from the George V to Miami’s Casa Tua) frequented by the characters.
“I’ve watched it grow from this tiny little baby book,” says Lee, a Yale University and Columbia Law graduate and actor who has appeared in films like Hitch, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. She is speaking from Los Angeles, the chirping of her family’s pet cockatiel in the background.
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.”
The book’s origin story is rooted in this feeling that life for older women can be more than the sum of their obligations to others. In 2017, Lee told blogger Deborah Kalb that when her husband Eric was away on business, she “was up late surfing music videos on YouTube” and “came across the face of a boy I’d never seen in a band I’d never paid attention to. … It was like…art.” A thorough Googling session, led her to the discover that “he often dated older women, and so the seed was planted.”
Lee began researching One Direction, and at times her work began to feel downright eerie. Lee wrote a scene about a Christmas jaunt to Anguilla, during which paparazzi capture Soléne and Hayes in a compromising position on a yacht. Months later, a similar (though decidedly more PG) scenario played out with Styles and Kendall Jenner. After Lee wrote a memorable, vulnerable sex scene set on a midcentury dining table, Styles released his first solo album, including a track titled: “From the Dining Table.”
Styles may have been her initial muse, but he is one of many who shaped the character of Hayes. (When I ask Lee if Styles inspired the novel, Lee pauses: “Inspired is a strong word.”) Prior to writing The Idea of You, she spent six years on a semi-autobiographical novel about a past relationship she had with a younger guy. That novel never sold, but she borrowed from its male lead, who was mature, sophisticated, worldly and smart, to write Hayes. “I made him into my dream guy,” she told me, “like Prince Harry, meets Harry [Styles],” plus a couple of ex-boyfriends, a little of her husband, and a dash of Eddie Redmayne.
It never occurred to Lee to skimp on the sex. In a story about a woman reclaiming her sexual identity, she saw that as short-changing the characters. Some of Hayes’s lines are, word for word, derived from Lee’s diary in the 90s, a place where she chronicled every last erotic detail of her own experience. Throughout The Idea of You, she revels in vivid descriptions of sexual pleasure, but always with the goal of advancing the dance between Soléne and Hayes. “I had a rule when I was writing that I was not going to make them physically naked if they were not emotionally naked,” she said. “Every single sex scene has to reveal something about him or about her that was going to be intrinsic to the story.” Lee cites the first time the couple has sex without a condom, on the aforementioned midcentury dining table, signifying they’d become exclusive.
The Idea of You was never released in hardcover and it never appeared on the bestseller list. It was branded as a mass-market paperback, a distinction often relegated to popular fiction by women for women that is centered in romance and sex. The Idea of You costs $16.99, about $10 less than hardcover books deemed upmarket, or more highbrow. “To me, I was writing literary fiction,” Lee told me, “it was just going to be a little more on the D.H. Lawrence side than not.”
But Lee is also acutely aware of the way books brimming with sex can be overlooked and diminished. There is a meta moment in The Idea of You, when Soléne praises August Moon’s vibrant pop music, and its teenage fans, but also seems to be advocating for the book itself. “We have this problem in our culture. We take art that appeals to women—film, books, music—and we undervalue it. We assume it can’t be high art. Especially if it’s not dark and tortured and wailing,” Lee writes. “We wrap it up in a pretty pink package and resist calling it art.”
The inclusion of explicit sex scenes is often the distinguishing factor, one publishing source told me, between mass-market and literary fiction. Lee recalls a a graduate of the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop opining that “when you’re writing literary fiction, you can write sex, but you shouldn’t have any emotion attached, because once you start attaching emotion, then it becomes more like romance,” she said. “I’m sure a man came up with that.” There is still a certain intangible value accorded to popular fiction by men and traditionally aimed at men—sci-fi, mystery, horror, thrillers—that eludes the romance genre. The ability to scare the reader or grip them in suspense is a skill, but, as Lee’s book demonstrates, so is the ability to turn them on.
“Everyone’s husband got laid the month they read my book,” Lee laughs—including hers. “I felt like I was having this affair in my head,” she said. “I’d finish a scene and run into the bedroom.”
Like Soléne, Lee is finding her own second life as an author and creator. The Idea of You has been optioned for a screen adaptation by Gabrielle Union’s production company, I’ll Have Another, with Lee as a producer. “It’s still happening as far as I know,” Lee told me. “That’s all I can say at this point. It’s still in development.”
The Haysolnuts ask, almost every day, about an Idea of You sequel—a prospect Lee has long opposed. “I didn’t want to write a sequel just to give them a happy ending,” she said. Now, however, she vacillates. “Pretty much right after I finished writing [The Idea of You], I started writing notes for what could possibly be a sequel, mostly because I couldn’t get them out of my head. Every once in a while, I’ll feel it really strongly, and I’ll sit down and I’ll write a scene or two, and I have a file that’s getting longer and longer.” She’s even done research for the maybe-possibly project. “I didn’t kill them off for a reason,” she laughs. Lee is currently working on another book, but she’ll no longer rule out The Idea of You 2: “I’m kind of waiting to have more to say.”