One-Minute Book Reviews

September 11, 2007

Nick Hornby Looks at a Marriage in Trouble in His Comic Novel, ‘How to Be Good’

Filed under: Novels,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:13 am
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Can a marriage survive if a husband and wife disagree on what it means to be a good person?

How to Be Good. By Nick Hornby. Riverhead, 305 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of a study that found that if you get fat, your close friends tend to gain weight, too. Something like this principle drives the third novel by Nick Hornby, the author of High Fidelity and About a Boy and the memoir Fever Pitch.

Katie Carr, an English doctor, has to reconsider her ideas about what it means to “a good person” after her 41-year-old husband, David, falls under the influence of a spiritual guru named D.J. GoodNews. This premise might sound like the set-up for a variation on that bedraggled cliché, an overprivileged couple’s midlife crisis.

But How to Be Good is a novel of ideas that is less about a marriage in trouble than about the question implicit in its title: What does it mean to be “good” in a materialistic age? Does it involve helping people through your work, as Katie imagines? Or does it require sacrifices such as giving away a family computer, as David insists after his abrupt spiritual conversion? If two people disagree on the answer, can they stay together?

As it parses these questions, How to Be Good shifts from satire to farce, and at times the characters resemble intentional caricatures. But Hornby maintains suspense about fate of Katie and David’s marriage until the last pages and invests their plight with enough comedy that the novel doesn’t turn into a sermon. And even his one- or two-liners often have a sly wisdom. In the first scene, Katie calls David on her cell phone to say she wants divorce, then tries to rationalize her behavior as atypical.

“But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all,” she reflects. “If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, any more than Lee Harvey Oswald couldn’t really claim that shooting presidents wasn’t like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Best line: “Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.”

Worst line: It’s unclear whether the lack of punctuation and subject-verb agreement in the following are intentional: “Whenever I have seen Jerry Springer, the guilty party always says to the devastated spouse ‘I tried to tell you we wasn’t happy, but you wouldn’t listen.’ And I always end up thinking that the crime of not listening does not automatically deserve the punishment of infidelity.”

Recommendation? A good book club book. More than most comic novels, How to Be Good raises the moral questions that could help to foster a lively discussion. And the slackers who never finish the book may have seen a movie version of one of Hornby’s other novels, so they won’t feel completely left out of the conversation.

Reading group guide: www.penguinputnamguides.com

Published: July 2001 (Riverhead hardcover), May 2002 (Riverhead paperback) us.penguingroup.com. Hornby’s latest novel is A Long Way Down (Riverhead, 2005).

Links: You can read about Hornby and download the first chapter of How to Be Good at his official site, www.nicksbooks.com. Visit the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for information on the movie versions of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy). Search for “Nick Hornby” on British Council site www.contemporarywriters.com for a biography, critical analysis and a list of his awards.

Caveat lector: I haven’t read Hornby’s earlier novels or Fever Pitch, which many of his fans prefer to How to Be Good.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She wrote the comic novels The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 14, 2006

Rebecca Campbell’s “Marriage Diaries”

A British-accented gross-out novel about a young couple with the seven-year-itch

The Marriage Diaries: A Novel. By Rebecca Campbell. Ballantine, 288 pp., $12.95, paperback.

The English love to deplore American vulgarity, but this book shows that when it comes to jokes about subjects like anal seepage, the Brits can beat the Yanks at their own game. The Marriage Diaries is a gross-out novel in the spirit of a Beavis and Butt-Head show, full of one-liners about belching, excrement, body odors, and human and animal semen.

A balsa-wood scaffolding supports the story of a London couple who get the seven-year-itch after the birth of their child, then try to find a way back to each other. Celeste is a self-absorbed workaholic who is said to be “a top clothing buyer” — hard to believe, given that she doesn’t know what a PDA is, let alone own a Palm Pilot. Sean is a writer and househusband who seems intended as the moral center of the novel, although he dismisses people like his mother-in-law with, “That old bitch.” The couple tell their story through antiphonal narration, or alternating diary entries about their encounters with friends and family who share their shallow values. At a party, Celeste and her guests spend “some quality time making fun of the fashion retards.”

Rebecca Campbell is the author of two earlier novels, Slave to Fashion and Slave to Love, and shows in The Marriage Diaries that she has enough education to write confidently about Leibniz, blind fish, and “the ontological proof” of God’s existence. So it’s unclear why she has chosen to create such repulsive characters. At times she makes clear that she’s capable of the unrelenting satire that they deserve. More often she substitutes archness or mild cleverness for real wit. She writes of one character: “Everything Uma said fell into one of two camps: the disdainfully dismissive and the grindingly sexual.” In a milder form that line would describe the entire novel.

Best Line: “St. James’s is probably the prettiest park in London, with its ornamental trees and cute bridge over the lake and black swans and outrageous, impossible pelicans and intricate flower beds. But it has always felt a little fake to me. The others – Green Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park – have that sense of being leftover bits of the countryside that were simply forgotten as the city grew up around them. By comparison, St. James’s is a carefully planned work of art, intricate, neat, and delicate, and a little soulless.” One of the few passages in the novel that seems to reflect genuine feeling instead of a strained attempt at cleverness.

Worst Line: “Do you mind if we discuss poo for a while?”

Consider reading instead: Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life and Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Anchor, 2003), a British import that deals far more effectively with a similar theme.

Caveat reader: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. The final version may differ slightly.

Editor: Signe Pike

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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