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.