How To Be Good is, what I assume to be after reading Hornby twice now (this and Juliet, Naked), another example of Hornby's schtick: mixing modern, hip characters that have major relationship problems and quirky, funny writing to ask some very serious questions. On the whole, though, this novel didn't quite work, but there is always something positive to derive from a generally poor novel, right? So, let's take a look at a brief plot summary and then the novel's plusses and minuses.
Katie (a doctor) and David (an angry newspaper columnist) are early-40s Londoners whose marriage is on the ropes. Katie has had a half-hearted affair basically because she's bored. David meets a street-healer calling himself DJ GoodNews, who, as a result of over-indulgence in Ecstasy in his youth, can now heal with his hands. David soon falls under GoodNews' thrall, and the two plot to make the world good — by giving away wealth, by convincing neighbors to let homeless teenagers sleep in their extra bedrooms, and by writing a book called "How To Be Good." Katie is less than pleased with her newly milquetoast husband (does it make her bad that she doesn't like him trying to be good?), and pines for the days of her husband who was angry and their marriage that was on the rocks — that, at least, she understood.
Assuming a novel starts out with a perfect five stars, here's a look at the factors that influenced me to arrive at my final rating of 2.5 stars.
- 2 for preposterous plot twist: Ultimately, the novel doesn't work because of the DJ GoodNews angle. If this fellow as such a successful healer (he cures David and Katie's daughter Molly of eczema, just by touching her), I'm pretty sure he'd have a bit larger following and not have to shack up with middle-class surburbanites. Plus, the whole miraculous healer angle — even if meant to be satiric — is just tired.
- 1 for not avoiding cliché religion angle: Hornby made it two-thirds of the way through the novel before deciding to have Katie, a bleeding-heart liberal who has never had any use for religion, go to church to look for answers. Maybe he felt like in a novel about being good, he had to throw that in or it'd be a glaring omission. Katie ultimately does find an answer from religion — at least from a minister who's pretty much thrown in the towel on God, herself — but in an unexpected and kind of silly way. Katie withholds a prescription from the minister until the minister tells her whether or not to leave her husband. C'mon.
- 1 for Katie's voice: The novel is told in Katie's first-person perspective, but instead of sounding like a depressed 40-year-old, she sounds like a sarcastic mid-20s hipster. Not genuine, but...
+ .5 for Hornby: I haven't liked either of the plots of his novels I've read, but I've enjoyed reading him for his funny, sarcastic and witty writing. Even as I'm annoyed by the silly plot, I always find something on a page that makes me keep reading. For instance, even though the religion trick was off-putting, this line's great: "I decide, on the spot, to let God into my heart, in the hope that my newfound faith can somehow be used as a vicious weapon in the marital war."
What'd you think? I know a lot of you warned me about this book, but I stubbornly read it anyway. But it still wasn't enough to put me off Hornby forever. He's the kind of writer I love reading — we just haven't gotten on the same page yet.