Monday, June 13, 2011

Hornby's How To Be Good: Accentuate The Positive

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 interesting questions to ponder: If Hornby had wanted to be a bit more concise than this novel-length, quasi-morality tale he could've just quoted Harold Bloom. Bloom famously said, "Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?" And that's exactly what this novel's about — in fact, a better title for Hornby's novel might be How To Be Yourself. Katie has always assumed she's a good person because she's a doctor, and helps people. But, as she says, "I'm beginning to think that being a good person in most ways doesn't count for anything much, if you're a bad person in one way." (Has her affair, and her resistance to swallowing GoodNews' good news as her husband has made her bad?) The idea of examining long-held assumptions about yourself is a positive lesson, and an interesting one to consider. Katie learns that she needs to discover how to make herself happy before she can be happy with her life and family. And if that involves a bit of selfishness (especially with time), then so be it.

- 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."

Total: 2.5. 

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.


  1. I've read a few of Hornby's books, but I've pretty much given up on him. I'll return to "High Fidelity," but the rest of his books fall too much into this shtick you write about for me to bother with. I haven't tried reading any of his novels since his Believer column ended. Getting that monthly glimpse of how well he writes about literature always made me want to believe his fiction could be just as good as his writing about fiction. Still, props for reviewing this - I think the last Hornby I tried reading I walked back to the library after about an hour, I was so disappointed with it.

  2. I've been a little let down by Hornby's fiction thus far. This was certainly not one of my favorites, nor was A Long Way Down, although I found Slam to be pretty good. However, if you haven't read The Polysyllabic Spree, you should; it's Hornby at his finest.

  3. I've still only read Hornby's collection of essay's for The Believer. They are fantastic and I'm hoping that once I get around to his fiction the same holds true. *fingers crossed*

  4. Only read A Long Way Down, once for me & once for book group, but really enjoyed it both times. Currently reading his collections of reviews... he writes in a way that makes me want to read what he read (much like you do, Greg!)

  5. I confess only to have read his early Fever Pitch, partly because I'm a soccer dork. Being such, and given Hornby's success, I expected maybe too much. It underwhelmed. Lots of great lines, but as a whole? I'll have to try High Fidelity and hope for the best. Not that Hornby isn't a talented writer; it's just that so many other books out there have characters I could care about. Maybe they're in one of his books. I expect you to tell me where they are because I'm feeling kinda lazy about it.

  6. Hornby has been a bit uneven in the quality of his books. I agree completely with your review of How To Be Good; a fascinating premise that sort of fizzled by book's end. Please do try About A Boy which I think his best followed by High Fidelity.

  7. Completely agree with you on all of the above - it got 4/10 from me. About A Boy redeemed Hornby in my view but not enough to make up for HTBG and High Fidelity (and another one, I'm sure I've read one more of this... why can't I remember the name...)

  8. @Ellen - It's too bad he can't seem to pull what is clearly a huge talent into a good novel - he's fun to read a lot of the time, but his stories just aren't. It's strange.

    @reviewsbylola - It's funny how there is zero consensus among Hornby fans about which is his best. A few told me this one was actually their favorite, most cite High Fidelity or About A Boy, and then you dropped The Polysyllabic Spree on us - that's a new one to me!

    @Brenna - Well, my advice would be to avoid either Juliet, Naked or this one, if you're planning to read his fiction. Everyone seems to agree that High Fidelity is pretty good - the fact that I love that movie so much is what drew me to try Hornby's novels in the first place.

    @RkC - Yeah, he's such a witty writer, it's just too bad it doesn't all come together for an entire novel (for the most part).

    @Steve - You captured Hornby perfectly, I think: "Lots of great lines, but as a whole?" I suspect Hornby's novel in which characters readers really care about is still percolating around in his skull - doesn't seem to have appeared as of yet.

    @Barbara - Yeah, on about page 200, I was ready to sing its praises. And then it totally fell apart down the stretch. I will check out About A Boy - thanks for rec.

    @readingfuelledbytea - Another vote for About A Boy - I'm getting more hopeful that I will actually like that one. But you didn't like High Fidelity, eh? Interesting...

  9. I've read all his books, and I have to agree that his later novels (How to Be Good, Slam, Juliet Naked, and even A Long Way Down) are not as good as his first two (High Fidelity and About a Boy). I like Hornby's writing style, though, so I won't be giving up on him. In my opinion, his very best books are his non-fiction works (Fever Pitch, 31 Songs and The Polysyllabic Spree)

  10. Ever read any Douglas Coupland? He's like a Canadian Nick Hornby. His voice is pretty similar, but its hipness and cynicism manages to make his dangerously Hallmarky subject matter work. (I personally like Eleanor Rigby)

  11. This is one of the extremely few books I have left unfinished (to the point where I actually gave away my half-read copy). I couldn't get past the preposterous plot twist, which I also considered a cliché religion angle. I had enjoyed High Fidelity well enough to put Hornby on my approved fluff list, but this took him right off. It sounds like if I had stuck it out it at least wouldn't have gotten any worse, and maybe a teensy bit better. But I think it's over been me and Hornby for good.

  12. Thanks! This book has been gathering dust, unread, on my shelves for a few years; now I can give it away without feeling guilty.

    I really like the three collections of Hornby's writing about reading that The Believer put out a few years ago; have you read his column at all?