Author of ‘The Idea of You,’ Robinne Lee, Didn’t Fully Love the Film’s Ending

Lee talked to Jezebel about what it was like having her debut novel adapted into the buzzy, star-studded rom-com and why she prefers her original ending.

Author of ‘The Idea of You,’ Robinne Lee, Didn’t Fully Love the Film’s Ending

Actress Robinne Lee spent two decades doing what every actress does…auditioning and existing at the mercy of producers and directors. Lee got a lot of roles, meaning she was mostly a working actress instead of the more common category of unemployed actress, and her acting career encompasses everything from Deliver Us from Eva (2003) to a standout recurring character in the series Being Mary Jane (2014), and arguably one of the only sane characters in the 50 Shades of Grey movie sequels. 

But, like many actresses aging towards 40, Lee decided to take her creative life into her own hands, so she wrote her debut novel, The Idea Of You, which was released in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press. Lee’s heroine is 40-year-old Solène Marchand, a recently divorced mother of a teenage daughter and an esteemed art gallery owner in Los Angeles. She accidentally meets a very hot 20-year-old boy band singer at a music festival where they have chemistry. Soon after, they begin a torrid but deeply intimate affair that makes everyone clutch their pearls. 

A mass-market paperback release, The Idea Of You never made it on the New York Times bestseller list. But because so many readers mentally fan cast Harry Styles into the part of singer Hayes Campbell, the novel became a grower, achieving consistent waves of renewed passion during the pandemic, as a BookTok sensation and as an ongoing Styles fandom group fantasy read. 

Now The Idea Of You is a movie (now streaming on Prime) starring Anne Hathaway as Solène and singer Nicholas Galitzine as a slightly aged-up 24-year-old Campbell. It’s being marketed as a straight-up rom-com with legendary comedian-turned-director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) at the helm. (Showalter also wrote the screenplay alongside Jennifer Westfeldt.) But the meat at the heart of Lee’s book is about a woman finding bittersweet agency in mid-life, while the rest of the observing world gets big mad at the old lady stealing their sex fantasy out from under them. 

To find out what Lee thinks of this next stage for her book’s existence, I got on a Zoom with her from her Paris abode where she’s relocated with her husband and kids, to get her perspective on how The Idea Of You has evolved beyond her laptop. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

JEZEBEL: It’s been seven years since The Idea Of You hit shelves and it already feels like it’s had many lives. What has surprised you the most in the last few years?  

ROBINNE LEE: Oh, goodness, I don’t even know what I was expecting. I was just writing as fast as I could, I had a lot to say. I wanted to say it eloquently and wanted it to be out there in a timely manner. I thought some women would like this and appreciate it, some may not. I also thought some would appreciate it superficially, who don’t see and get and really appreciate the deeper meaning of the social commentary. And there are others who will. If the light-hearted [aspects] and the fluff part speak to you, wonderful. But I’m really writing for women like me, who are looking for deeper reads who can appreciate some escapism and some fantasy but also want to delve into something a little bit more profound. Also, something that explores all the things they’re going through and thinking about as we get older. 

There’s a lot that comes after the happily ever after, like sometimes it’s not happily ever after. You continue to grow and evolve as a human being. Life just gets more complex and delicious and interesting and layered, and I wanted to write about that. 

The book tackles the idea of how women are so pigeonholed into categories by others, and Solène decides for a time to defy that. Do you feel like readers were missing all of the deeper stuff for the hot romance?

The book is not a romance and I say that pretty often. It was a love story. I did not read romance growing up. And I didn’t read romance until very recently. Like when this book came out, I started making friends in the romance world and reading their books. So I didn’t know there was a formula and I wasn’t trying to follow one. I was just writing my own book. I mostly read literary fiction and women’s fiction, so I was just writing a story. 

They say, “If the book you want is not out there, write it.” I didn’t see anyone having stories about women reclaiming their sexuality or redefining themselves at 40: Having the full spectrum, wanting to be a great mom but also a powerful career woman on a global stage. And then having a sexy romance life. You can do one, or the other, but no one was writing about all those different things together. 


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On that note, it’s amazing how the world has changed in only seven years with the pandemic and social media being even more invasive. Do you think the world today would be even harder on Solène’s choices or more supportive?

I think it’s harder because you’re so much more exposed with social media, and there are people with camera phones everywhere. Everything you say or do can be filmed and then uploaded and shared virally with the world. It’s so easy to be canceled and to fall into this space where people are lashing out at you, and you can hear it. When I first started acting, I guess the internet was a thing, but no one was really on it. If people didn’t like it, you could really just avoid reading the reviews and never know. No one could tag you and say, “This movie with so and so really sucked, and here’s why….” Now they do that. So I think life was easier. Obviously, there are many ways that technology and social media have made the world better and more connected. But in some aspects, it makes things a little more complicated and difficult.

Did you write The Idea of You with the intention of it hopefully having another life in another medium? 

I didn’t. I was writing it as a book. I’ve always written for myself for entertainment and just as a creative outlet because with acting you’re always waiting for permission to act. So much is rejection and auditions and waiting and waiting and rejection. You don’t get to practice your craft. But writing is something I’ve always loved to do, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. I wanted to tell the best story, the way I could. If I was thinking about it as a film, I would have cut corners. You should have the freedom to create your world in the way you want and tell your story the way you want, and not put limits on yourself. Never thinking, What is my line producer gonna say?

Your long-time friend Gabrielle Union is a producer on the film, so was she the conduit to getting it shopped around Hollywood?

I’d given her an early draft of the book for her to blurb so she had it in mind. She met [producer] Cathy Schulman and shortly after the book came out she said to me, “There’s this producer I’ve met. I think you would get along well. She really loves your book and is really interested in trying to do female-driven projects. I’d love to set up a meeting if that’s a possibility?” And so it came from that.

Did you sell the rights with any caveats that you were included in the process, like script review or notes?

I was not involved at all in the production of the film. You give your baby away and you hope they’re not going to destroy it. I think it’s a situation for many writers. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling or even E.L. James, who had some say, I don’t think they give us much say.

How did that feel as the author? Was there any contact at all with Showalter or just “take a look now that it’s done”?

It was pretty much “take a look now that it’s done.” It’s very complicated. A writer friend of mine told me, “Look, I know this is probably the most difficult thing you’re ever going to go through.” There’s no place for us to voice that. No one’s asking writers what it feels like to have their work adapted. Other than on a red carpet where you’re smiling and saying, “It’s great!” You can no longer think of it as your child. You have to look at it like they’re cousins.

[Writing] is a solitary profession, right? You’re alone with all these voices in your head. You think you’re going crazy anyway and that’s just one more thing to tip you into the crazy place. You have to let go of your ideas of it and look at it as something else that exists outside of you. You also have to be aware that they’re two completely different media, right? It’s never going to transfer exactly as you see it. They’re going to have to make changes and you know that. Or, you write a screenplay and you don’t write a novel.


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Spoilers ahead

The ending of your book was controversial to some expecting a happy ending for Solène and Hayes. But the ending in the movie is a lot sunnier. How does that sit with you?

When I was writing this book, I was very aware that I was writing from the perspective of a French woman. I’m a huge fan. I live here now in Paris and they have a different approach to many things than we do in America. And that’s part of their appeal to me. I love the way they tell their stories. I love their films. I love that they don’t feel like they have to put a happy ending on it and wrap it up in a pretty bow. I love that there’s a lesson to be learned and it can be dark and groveling and it could be sad. It can be illuminating. If you’re French, you go out to eat with your friends after [a movie] in a cafe and you smoke cigarettes and drink red wine for two more hours talking about it. It’s perfect here. And so I wanted this book to feel French to me. I wanted a French ending. I wanted the person to leave the theater and be like, “Whoa! We have to discuss this!” As opposed to like, “Oh…that’s good.” But that’s America. 

The new ending will make some readers happy though?

It’s not real and that’s what really bothers me. I can’t stand that. In romance, even if it’s a happy ending, that’s just the beginning. Anyone who’s been married for more than a year—five, 10, 20 years—knows that it’s work. And it’s not always happy, happy! But you’re a team. You’re gonna’ have highs and lows. There are gonna’ be days that are not so great, especially if you have kids, and you’re living through that.

I don’t know. I think as young girls we’re fed so many fairy tales about the Prince and the knight in shining armor, and it’s not real. It’s a lot to put on us, that expectation—when we start looking for real-life partners and what a relationship should look like, and what a partnership should look like. It just kind of screws with our heads. 

I understand for some people, there’s a time and place for escapism. And some people need that because the oppression or the heaviness of real life is, like, “I need something to just get me out of this moment!” But I’d like to give the other people another option; those who don’t necessarily need their little bit of levity and escape to be completely frothy, and not have something more gravitas.

Looking at the finished film, where’s your head with it now? Do you hope it brings people to your book to see your intended story?

I don’t really know. I feel like there are enough echoes of the book in the movie. It’s a beautiful romance. It’s a beautiful love story. Anne and Nicholas do an incredible job. They’re super talented; they’re 100% committed; they’re passionate; they’ve got great chemistry; they go on a full journey; they’re emotional, and they are depleted when it calls for it…which is a huge part of my story. There is some commentary on aging and the double standard that will speak to some people. And I think that people who love my book will see the movie and be like, “Oh, it’s not quite…but I still enjoyed it.” And it is an enjoyable movie. It feels enough like The Idea of You. I think people who see the movie and then come to the book, it’ll work the same way. They’ll understand how one came from the other. There are some gems that Michael got in there.

What’s next for you book-wise?

My next book, I can’t talk very much about it, but it’s a woman’s story. I think I’m always going to write versions of women’s stories. Or at least with some significant female character at the heart of it because I know us, and I like us. I want to provide things for us to think about and things to entertain us. But it’s hard. I guess that’s art. I don’t know. So often you’ve got the heavy literature or the nonfiction with the heavy subjects. And then you’ve got the lighter kind of stuff. Why aren’t there more stories that kind of meld the two? Why can’t we have hot sex scenes and then also really important discussions about aging, and what society’s expectations are of us?

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