How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Nick Hornby is one of those authors whose name I have been aware of for a while, but never was tempted to pick up — his books have always been well-reviewed but those positive reviews left me thinking that his approach just didn’t mesh with my tastes. My recent review of Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good produced comments from three different sources that they rated Hornby’s How To Be Good highly (and I don’t think it was just the similar title) so I moved it right to the top of the pile.

While this novel was published ten years ago, it does share some elements with Grant’s new novel — most particularly, its central theme is how a couple (and their children) cope with the pressures of the latter half of the last century on their relationship. That’s pretty much where the direct comparison ends, however. While Grant (and Johnathan Franzen in Freedom) use their subject families as a staging ground for a wide-ranging, outward examination of the societal forces at play, Hornby takes the opposite approach to the same environment: an introspective look at how those forces play out with a particular couple, their challenges and the resulting life.

This quote comes from late in the book but, at that point, it serves as a summary for the reader of everything that has gone before (and indeed the entire book) and I don’t think represents a spoiler:

The trick, it seems to me, is to stave off regret. That’s what the whole thing is about. And we can’t stave it off forever, because it is impossible not to make the mistakes that let regret in, but the best of us manage to limp on into our sixties or seventies before we succumb. Me, I made it to about thirty-seven, and David made it to the same age, and my brother gave up the ghost even before that. And I’m not sure that there is a cure for regret. I suspect not.

As that quote indicates, this is a first-person novel and when we meet the 37-year-old narrator (the author keeps her name hidden until well into the book — it’s a symbol of her lack of concete identity — so I won’t use it) she has just reached a tipping point in terms of the role that regret plays in her life:

I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular assessment will now have to be revised, clearly.

The 37-year-old narrator is a doctor, the family breadwinner. In both her professional and personal life, things have been slowly but steadily shrinking (if you are familiar with the “frog in hot water” metaphor where short-term adaptation leads to long-term annihilation it is appropriate here). Her own view of her medical practice has led her to characterize it by the hopeless cases (Barmy Brian is the best example and he will play a role in the novel) whom she sees regularly and can offer no help whatsoever of making things better — mainly because they want no part of things being better.

Her married and family life has shrunk in much the same manner, characterized by a listless affair that leads to the phone call from the parking lot. She doesn’t hate David, but she can’t really remember what attracted them in the first place — discordant ennui would probably be the most accurate description. The relationship has been degenerating on a more or less consistent basis, but circumstances have always made it easier to adapt (cf. the frog) than to do anythiing about it.

The narrative tension of the book is produced by David’s response to that same degeneration. Unlike his wife who started marriage and career with hope and ambition, he has always been passive. “Self-employed” as a writer of company brochures and working in desultory fashion on a “novel”, his life, effectively an aimless house husband, has been shrinking as well. But while in the present tense she is wallowing aimlessly in regret, his response to the shrinking of life (which for him wasn’t much to begin with) is to be aggressive about changing it.

The old David did have one regular source of income, a newspaper column subtitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway” where he vented his rage:

The last one I could bear to read [the narrator says] was a diatribe against old people who travelled on buses: Why did they never have their money ready? Why wouldn’t they use the seats set aside for them at the front of the bus? Why did they insist on standing up ten minutes before their stop, thus obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion? You get the picture, anyway.

A “healing” experience with a charlatan (truly, a laying on of hands) named D.J. GoodNews who fixes David’s aching back also changes his entire outlook on life. Angry, but otherwise passive, response to his circumstances changes to an obsessive attempt to make a better world. GoodNews, who is pretty much homeless, moves into the spare room, despite the narrator’s objections, and the two men begin hatching plans to make that better world (recruiting neighbors on the street to supply spare rooms to homeless youth is one that actually gets started) but, given their near-total lack of real life experience, those plans are both hopelessly grand and grandly hopeless.

Hornby uses that David/GoodNews thread to indulge in some of his observations about the broader life happening around this cast (just as Grant and Franzen use their families) and often accomplishes that with fair satirical humor. The major theme, however, is how wife and husband attempt to cope with their own relationship and the narrator’s dramatic revelation that she might (or might not — perhaps they should just adapt?) want out of it.

For this reader, How To Be Good turned out to be a very readable novel, but I will admit that it tended to confirm my impression of Hornby. The writing is more than competent, but the book just doesn’t have enough to it to be deeply engaging. My comparison would not be Grant or Franzen, but rather Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment, a novel focused on the marital and survival challenges facing a similar, rather hopeless couple as WWII comes to an end — Woodward’s book is set 50 years earlier, but both his and Hornby’s are preoccupied with how exterior forces play out on a married couple who are totally incapable of coping with them. For me, at least, Woodward’s sense of the macabre and absurd added an element that this novel simply does not have.

I gather from a bit of surfing that Hornby tends to specialize in what I will call “relationship angst” and that those who like that kind of thing feel he does it very well (hence his steady record of positive reviews). Alas, I am not included in that number which would explain my lukewarm reaction to the book. Having said that, there are set pieces and incidents that were very well done and I am sure will come back to mind over time — if you are more open to the central conceit than I was, I am sure you will find more in this novel than I did.

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28 Responses to “How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Thanks for this review, Kevin. I bought HTBG ages ago and it languished on the TBR for a while until I finally gave it away to someone who I thought would like it. Your review confirms the rightness of that decision!
    I think that Revolutionary Road is the benchmark for novels about relationship angst…

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: An interesting observation about Revolutionary Road — this novel is even more internal than Yates’ is. Having said that, it was clearly Hornby’s intention to do just that.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: when I read How To Be Good, I initially didn’t think it was that great. Good not great. I enjoyed it, but that was about the extent of it. Since that time (a few years ago), the novel and the entire idea of what it means to be ‘good’ has come back to my mind–specifically, the way in which the husband tries to reassert his control in the relationship through his moral authority. There are some priceless scenes there.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Good not great would fairly summarize my response. I also suspect that reading it so soon after the Grant was not a good idea. Her novel, with its broader scope (and, frankly, the fact that it is about my generation), speaks much more to my interests. While the two have more differences than similarities, I am pretty sure that colored my view of this book. And as I said in the review there are moments and scenes that I do expect will keep coming back to me.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve read several Hornby and after finishing How to be Good, it was not initially my favourite. That has shifted with time.

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how reading sequence affects things. I try to shake things up (classic, crime, fairly modern), but things don’t always work out and then I run into topic similarity. But even that’s good at times. Oh well as long as we are having fun….

  6. Jean Cockburn Says:

    I read How to be Good about two years ago and was unimpressed. Like Kevin I knew the Hornby name, and so was inclined to be positive about the book. Not. I decided that it read like the screenplay for a American sitcom – the family situation was not believable or sympathetic, and it as too “cutsey”. The only good that came out of it was that as I was looking for Hornby on the library shelf I came across Russell Hoban who was previously unknown to me. Now there is a fantastic writer! He is several times more talented than Hornby and I strongly recommend “The Bat Tatoo” as a first read of Hoban.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jean: Welcome, and thanks for the thoughts. I don’t know Hoban but will have a look.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    I have never been remotely interested in reading any of Hornby’s work for reasons I can’t quite fathom. Perhaps, unfairly, I’ve categorised him as the male equivalent of “chick lit”. I had a review copy of “Juliet, Naked” sitting here for months, before I donated it to my local Oxfam. But your review indicates I’d probably like his stuff, just as a kind of light, entertaining read.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I’ve carried a similar impression to your male chick-lit (my description would have been a somewhat heavier version of Nicholas Sparks). Off this book, both are unfair — there’s more to it than that. And given his consistent best-seller status, whatever it is obviously appeals to a large number of readers.

  10. whisperinggums Says:

    It’s taken me a while to remember this book. I’ve read it and About a boy, but a long time ago now. I see them both as fine but not great, pretty much like Guy. They are both pretty readable books and deal with modern societal issues and pressures but don’t have that extra lift or complexity to raise them above the crowd. Still, as Guy says, it has some interesting scenes and does confront that whole issue of “goodness”, and what it means, in our times – about the tension between some notion of universal goodness versus being a good person in one’s family life. (Or have I forgotten it and am mixing it up with something else?)

    I did like the film version of High fidelity (though not having read the book I have no idea how close the film is, given that it was translated from England to America.)

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gummy: He is certainly readable, but I do think the relationship-angst plot line makes him not my favorite bowl of stew. When I am looking for entertainment, I think I’d rather head off into mystery or crime or whatever.

  12. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, I read this book a few years ago while flying from Pittsburgh to Vancouver Island. I laughed out loud so many times my daughter insisted I move to the next aisle. It was a delightful airplane read, better than most because the married-forever-relationship-angst angle is more compelling than the Jack Ryan defeats the IRA [or whomever] novel, but still light enough to keep the reader entertained even when they’ve been rerouted to Seattle because they’ve missed their connections. Ah those were the days.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Susan: I have to admit that this would be the perfect transcontinental airplane read — more than enough to keep you interested, good high points but not so serious that you would get lost.

  14. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    This is an excellent review and ensures that I will pass on Hornby. Neither the topic nor the writing sound compelling to me, so, like you, I will look for entertainment elsewhere. Anything that feels remotely like a sitcom is anathema to me. Not that I don’t like sitcoms. Some are wonderfully entertaining (Seinfeld). Sitcoms are for watching, not reading.

    Given my recent spate of reading, I am surprised Nick Hornby hasn’t yet made an appearance in the ToB.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Hornby does have his fans and he does have value. And, yes, I am rather surpised he has not shown up on ToB — does strike me as the kind of book that they like.

  16. Lee Monks Says:

    I think this is a fine novel and that Hornby is a cut above ‘sitcom’ standard to be fair, although an aversion to ‘relationship angst’ would pretty much kill any desire to be a Hornby completist…his worst book, A Long Way Down, was so dire as to have me approaching future Hornby with extreme caution, and I haven’t bothered since.

  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds as others have said like a good but not great novel.

    When I want lighter entertainment I look to crime or sf as a rule. I think because I have those genre choices available I tend to try to avoid lighter literary fiction (general fiction, whatever you want to call it) so I’ll be passing.

    Were I a betting man I’d have bet against you being a Hornby fan Kevin. I was quite surprised when I saw this review pop up.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think you handicap my tastes pretty well, Max. I am glad that I read this book, if only so I can say that I have at least tried Hornby, but I don’t think I will be trying any more. I can understand why people like him but he tends to focus on a central theme that is of marginal interest to me.

  19. Guy Savage Says:

    I am currently reading Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It reminds me of a Hornby novel. Am I the only one who thinks this?

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I have it near to hand — probably will get to it in a month or so. I quite liked two of Coe’s previous novels (Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle) and while I see some similarities with my limited exposure to Hornby I think Coe is more inclined to broader satire and observation.

  21. Guy Savage Says:

    This is my first Coe, so I have nothing else to judge against. I liked it–quite entertaining, but I have to say I prefer Hornby at this point. The ending was (not going to spoil it) a little disappointing.

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