How to Be Good (Nick Hornby)

0.5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
It’s tough to think that maybe a writer just has a niche, but Hornby, who’s done an excellent job perfecting the immature, flawed, yet redeemable adult male prototype, somehow completely fails when he tries to capture a similarly multilayered female protagonist.  Our heroine is a GP who thinks she is good (because she cares about things like causes, and is a GP, and tries to be a decent mother and a loyal wife until the start of our novel), but who is ultimately not only very flawed and imperfect, but downright annoying. There’s nothing to grasp onto and keep you reading in this book — Katie (our GP) and her husband David are clearly miserable and self-absorbed, with their kids being more there as staging and background rather than any real presence.  The dialogue is quick and light, and there are moments of levity, but overall, I found it very hard to relate, or even want to relate, to any of the characters or situations.

Greater Detail:
The novel starts off with not only its most interesting plot device, but also some of the only logical action that exists in the entire novel: Katie calls her husband to check up on something very trivial (their daughter’s dental appointment), but because they’re both miserable with one another and the situation, they begin the dramatic sighing, they pick a fight, and Katie more or less asks for a divorce.  It’s clearly not completely unexpected as they’re unhappy, and Katie reveals via her first-person narration that she’s just cheated on her husband for the first time.  Her husband’s reaction is also telling: rather than being shocked or even really upset, he clarifies that she’s asking, that he can tell people that she brought it up, out of the blue more or less, as if the narrative he’ll be telling people later is more important than the question itself.

The dialogue in the beginning is interesting and believable — they’re obviously miserable, and you can see how that sort of unhappiness might just boil over one day, somehow, after a couple decades of (as Katie describes it) loyal but passionless monogamy.

But it’s as though, having given us this nice setup, Hornby doesn’t quite know where to go. Stephen, the man Katie slept with just once, becomes an almost-stalker.  He calls her, she doesn’t pick up, and so he goes to her practice and pretends to have his arm in a sling, to force her into a meeting.  Later, when she finally agrees to meet with him (but not sleep with him again, at least not yet), she’s almost nonsensically aggressive with him, asking if he wants her to run away from him, a question that understandably shocks him (they barely know each other, after all), and her only defense is really: well, I’m married, I have two kids, so I need to know these things.  They don’t seem to feel any love for one another, yet they’re enough into the “idea” of an affair that they engage in one (though Katie is very meta about the whole thing, taking out any possibility of romance in her analysis of the situation).

Meanwhile, David more or less ignores the divorce request and they continue to pick at each other while honoring their social commitments. He’s more the stay-at-home parent since he writes a local column entitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway,” and since this kind of apathetic bickering can’t continue indefinitely, we get our next big plot twist: that David, after meeting some man in Finsbury Park who cures his back pain, suddenly becomes an extreme version of a hippie do-gooder, wanting to give away all their belongings et cetera because of his transformation.

The rest of the book feels more like a screenplay than a novel, with plot twists and character confrontations that allow for witty dialogue, but don’t always (or hardly ever) seem to make sense.  That, added to the almost unlikeable protagonists, made this a very difficult book to like, or even finish.  

Comparisons to Other Books:
Nick Hornby has some wonderful other offerings that are quick and light, but also enjoyable.  High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life have all been made into movies, and the cast really explains the characters in this sense: John Cusack, Hugh Grant and Jimmy Fallon, the respective leads in those movies, are really the men-who-never-grew up.  They hang onto their music, their self-absorbed indulgences, their sports obsessions, before getting to the point in middle age where adulthood seems to finally be rearing its head (usually through a woman or some other relationship that requires real, adult emotions and responses).  Here, we seem to have the opposite: a seemingly mature woman who’s already in committed roles and relationships, who can’t quite seem to find herself or her voice.  Hornby can be a deft, witty writer, but none of that shows through here.  So if you’re looking for something more light and fun, read the other books by Hornby; the three mentioned above, or A Long Way Down, are all excellent alternatives to this one.

(A small point of clarification: I mention Jimmy Fallon here, but there are really two versions of Fever Pitch; the British one has Colin Firth, and the Hollywood version switches baseball and in for soccer and stars Jimmy Fallon instead.)

Tagged with:
Posted in Literary Fiction

Leave a Reply