Nick Hornby: How to be Good

Nick Hornby: How to be Good I picked this book up about a half-year ago at a foreign book sale, but I’ve had no real urge to read it until recently. To be honest, I had been a bit afraid to read fiction from Hornby, having only read part of Fever Pitch and his collection of essays related to music, Songbook (published as 31 Songs in the UK). (Surely watching High Fidelity a dozen times doesn’t count, does it?) But after recently finishing his two books of essays on books and reading (The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt — see my review), and enjoying them very much (as I had Songbook), I wanted to see what Hornby and fiction were like. And as it turned out, I ended up having Hornby’s non-fiction voice in my head so much that for the first 50 pages or so of this novel, which is narrated in the first-person by a woman, I couldn’t properly work out whether I was in this woman’s head or in Hornby’s. Fortunately though, very soon after that this question ceased to be relevant, so successfully did Hornby create this character and her voice.

I really liked this book, although somewhere around the three-quarters mark it lost a bit of its luster, for reasons I’m not sure I could explain. I suppose I started to lose a bit of clarity as to character motivation, and some of the decisions taken by the main characters didn’t ring quite as true as the did earlier in the novel. But overall I thoroughly enjoyed what was by turns a very funny book and at the same time rather sobering, especially for anyone who is married or experienced divorce. There are a few brilliant set pieces as well (the party and church scenes in particular) that could stand out on their own almost as short stories.

The main character (Katie Carr) seemed to be excellently drawn, by the end (minus some minor quibbles as mentioned) I really felt as if I was in her head. I really enjoyed the interplay between what she said to others, and what she was merely thinking (although given the book’s small print and the use of only a single apostrophe to not quotations, I often had to go back and check whether she was speaking or merely thinking). I found the criticism that goody two-shoes liberalism comes under to be absolutely spot on, even as the book shows that liberalism is not such an easy target as we might like to think it is. The question the book mainly addresses, eg. how to be (a) good (person), on both a personal, one-to-one level and a societal level, is completely valid and not easily answerable.

What I particularly liked was that it’s very difficult to draw sides amongst the characters here. At the outset, Katie is a doctor, doing that not for money but because she wants to be good, and she is the breadwinner of the family. Meanwhile, her husband David is a house-husband, a hack writer, and generally an insufferable Angry (Middle-aged) Man. Yet it is Katie who has had an affair. Later, we see that Katie may well be a “hack” doctor, slugging it out with incurable patients but perhaps not as committed as she’s led us to believe, while her husband has seen the light and now — in addition to turning a new leaf in his marriage — also wants to save the world, even if it’s just one household at at time (and it literally does start with his and Katie’s household). He then becomes an insufferable liberal, yet patently doing good things, while Katie finds herself pining for things the way they were before, when she was on the verge of divorce.

I’m glad I finally gave Hornby’s fiction a shot, and I can easily see myself reading some of his other novels, particularly his most recent A Long Way Down, before too long.

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