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Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good

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How to Be Good is the third book by Nick Hornby that I have read. The other two, High Fidelity and 31 Songs, were insightful, well written, and hilarious. Both happen to also be about music. 31 Songs is a collection of essays about, well, 31 songs. High Fidelity uses the protagonist’s obsession with pop music to discuss his relationships with women. I have not read the book, but the movie version of About a Boy also contains a similar musical theme. Music is obviously something very dear to the heart of the writer. With How to Be Good, Hornby seems to be making a real attempt to steer clear from this area. In fact, the narrator/main character, Katie Carr, mentions that her life is completely devoid of music, books, and movies. Unfortunately, her life and this book is almost completely devoid of what makes Nick Hornby novels so good.

In choosing to leave his normal type of fiction, Hornby chose to write this novel in the first person from the perspective of a middle aged, middle class, female doctor. Where as he can write articulately, with great perspective, about a middle aged male obsessed with music, Hornby has no true understanding of how woman doctor might feel. This character comes of sounding whiny, self-important, rattlebrained, and false. The plot comes off so implausible I spent most of the novel groaning for help.

Katie Carr tries to live a good life. She became a doctor to help people, tries to love her husband and raise her two children right. Yet by the books beginning her life is thoroughly messed up. Problems with her husband David, the self-professed “Angriest man in Holloway” have been going on for years, and her she is no longer sure of how she feels about her own children. In fact she is ready for a divorce and a new life. However, before she is granted this, her husband , healed by some mystical healer changes things around. Instead of the sarcastic, angry man he has always been, suddenly he is a kind, generous, make the world better kind of guy. The crux of the story is Katie trying to come to terms with this change. Having a hateful husband was horrible, but she is not sure having a super husband is much better. What follows is a series of mildly amusing, if highly suspect, adventures, and a great deal of preaching.

There are few scatterings of great writing. My favorite moments are, actually, when we get small snippets of the old David. His anger is in the form of sarcasm and we get summaries of articles he wrote for a paper, which are quite hilarious. When Hornby is on, he is able to bring out humor and poignancy in any scene. Here, we gleam a few moments of this brilliance before he bogs us back down into his sermon.

Knowing a little biography of the author, and his own tumultuous marriage, I can’t help but think this is his way of sorting things out. Perhaps he is even trying to see things from his wife’s perspective. There is a lot of cut throat bickering between spouses here, and one wonders if some of it isn’t autobiographical.

Elsewhere, Hornby has been able to give us a glimpse of how to be good, without overtly showing us. In other novels he gives us characters who have flaws, but are able to sort something out for themselves while remaining true to their character. Here the story seems sacrificed in order to tell the audience how to live. Let’s hope he returns to his earlier form by showing us, and not preaching.

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About Mat Brewster

  • i agree Mat. i found this the least satisfying of the hornby novels i’ve read (all of em except Fever Pitch).

    I imagine you might really enjoy About A Boy, which actually differs quite a lot from the film. Kurt Cobain, for example, plays big part in the narrative.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    I m ust recommend Fever Pitch, Duke. In my mind, it’s more relentless and naggingly true than even High Fidelity. And it’s funnier.

  • Mat

    Fever Pitch, that’s the one about football/soccer? I know absolutely nothing about the sport. But I guess that shouldn’t stop me sice I haven’t heard half the songs listed in 31 Songs, but still dug the crap out of the book.

    I will definitely continue to check out all of his books. One off isn’t enough to stop reading an otherwise good author. I kept reading chuck Palihniuk several books after he stopped being interesting.

  • will check out Fever Pitch soon as i’m done reading the half-dozen or so on the go at the minute.

    And Palahniuk stopped being interesting? i can’t get behind that, man. his latest thingy, Non-Fiction, that right there is wonderful. And i hear his next novel is excellent too.

  • I gotta agree, How To Be Good was underwhelming. Maybe it’s just me, but that damned ending perplexed the hell out of me, which came as a complete surprise given the way the rest of the book progressed. It just me with the very dissatisfied taste of “huh?” in my mouth. I read and reread the last few pages of the book trying to figure out what it meant. Never got it, gave up, and moved on to other things. It still annoys me, however.

    And for those who care, Fever Pitch will be in theaters shortly starring . . . ew . . . Jimmy Fallon, according to IMDB, and will be about the Red Sox (you know, baseball?) Here’s the first adaptation, which stars Colin Firth and appears to be more faithful to the book in at least keeping it about soccer (you know, football to you European types.)

  • Mat

    Yeah, I think Palahniuk got boring. Or rather he got repetetive. I reviewed Diary on this page somewhere. I loved Fighclub, but every book since has been more of the same. Same basic writing style, same basic theme. Giving a book a more ludicrous plot line doesn’t mean you are writing something new. Or at least that’s my opinion.

    By the end of HtbG I was so relieved it was actually ending to be concerned with exactly how it ended. I don’t remember being confused by the last page or so, but I don’t really remember what happened either. Man, I’m getting old, I just finnished it a couple of days ago.

  • Just on Fever Pitch, there’s no real need to know much about football to enjoy this book, as its two main ideas are about having a curious obsession for a losing team and his bonding with his son. Its probably his tenderest work and is truly very good.

  • ****This is for the people perplexed by the ending. I’m making an attempt to explain it without any spoilers.****

    The ending of HTBG follows a theme that Hornby runs through all his works. Rather than have a huge climax and a ridiculously happy ending, he attempts to maintain a gravity to his work. In a way, everything is simply fine. Not great, not terrible, but okay. If you look at the endings of his other works, you’ll notice it as well.

  • Mat

    Cool, I’ll be sure to pick up Fever Pitch one of these days.

  • paul

    ***SPOILER ALERT: How To Be Good***

    I’ve only read HTBG so far but will keep reading Hornby because I think he’s great. Now, can somebody please explain the ending of HTBG in specific, spoiler-ridden terms? I just do not get the last sentence. What the hell happens? Does David fall out of the window? Does Katie decide she can’t go on with him? What is she talking about when she says there’s absolutely nothing out there? Is there any way to know what Hornby means or is it normal for him to leave you hanging with seemingly meaningless sentences? It’s driving me crazy!!!

  • paul

    Apart from the maddening ending, I think HTBG is first-rate and frequently hilarious analysis of marriage after 40. Highly recommended, especially for those of us who can relate.

  • I honestly don’t remember what the last line of the book was, so I can’t help you with its meaning. Although I don’t remember it being confusing. Perhaps posting it would remind me.

    One of my disappointments with HtbG is seemed that Hornby was taking his own frustrations from a failed marriage into his characters. Writing from a woman’s perspective while preaching about what good is, annoyed the crap out of me.

    You should definitely keep reading Hornby, I’ve very much enjoyed everything else of his I have read.

  • paul

    I do not agree that the book is preachy. Its title is pure irony. Hornby makes clear that David’s actions and plans to do “good” after his epiphany are increasingly ludicrous. David himself seems to realize this near the end. The book doesn’t preach but does point out the hypocrisy of many (upper) middle-class liberals who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, maybe because it’s unwalkable. It takes sides with those, like Katie, who find it impossible to be totally unselfish do-gooders.

  • I can’t read any of Nick Hornby’s books but they make good movies. What seems misogynist in the books comes off differently in the onscreen adaptation. The movies are just less confusing, perhaps less self-involved.

  • Paul, I agree that the book doesn’t side with David, but it didn’t make Katie’s side very compelling either. In the end I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, and the writing seemed more forced, the plot more contrived than any of the other novels I’ve read of Hornbys.

    Cerulean, High Fidelity and About a Boy were certainly fine movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book for High Fidelity as well. Sure the main character is a bit of a bastard, but I think Hornby fully fleshes him out and makes him redeemable, or at least likable in the end.

  • Graeme

    I have read Hi Fidelity, About a Boy and just finished How to be Good. I liked the book (a lot) but not the ending.

    This link is worth visiting. It discusses some of the main issues as well as the ending. Cleared up some things for me.


  • Thanks for the link!

  • Valentina

    I’m surprised that this book has got so many negative critics, I think it was really good and he did a good job in going trough a woman’s mind.
    Loved this book

  • Matt

    I HAD to choose a book for english and instead of choosing the backstory of the wicked witch of the west (yes, from the Wizard of Oz) I chose this book, because I know I wouldn’t finish a 500 page book in 3-4 weeks (technically i could but i knew i wouldn’t just because ive never really commited to a book). So far this book it BORING!(I’ve read to page 130). Everytime i pick it up im like “Uh, this book sucks SO much that it drains my energy just reading it.” I guess this book wouldn’t be so bad it half of the time Katie wasn’t describing EVERY SINGLE THING that happens. I don’t care. Don’t get off track for so long when it doesn’t make much of a difference, JUST GET TO THE DIALOGUE. Oh, and jsuk, i won’t be reading this ever so i don’t care if you flame me. i was just here to find the ending of the book to finish an english project. bye.

  • Dee Simon

    I read a lot and I have to say, How to be Good was the gloomiest, most depressing, boring book I’ve ever read. Does Nick Hornby actually KNOW any women?