What do you do when you hate your husband, want desperately for him to change, then hate the new version even more?
Apparently, you end up trying to end homelessness.
I’m being a bit reductive, of course, but that’s a very quick sketch of Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. Katie and David Carr have been married for a quarter of what feels like forever. She’s a physician with the NHS; he’s an arts columnist for the local newspaper, a would-be novelist, and (occasionally) a corporate brochure writer. Together, they raise their kids, Tom and Molly. They’ve got a house, cars, income, friends – a good life.
Unfortunately, they can’t stand each other.
The book starts with Katie blurting out that she wants a divorce. She assumes David wants the same thing, but – much to her surprise (and chagrin) – he gets stubborn. Refuses. While Katie is trying to figure out her next move, a seismic shift occurs. The annoying, hurtful, cynical, childish David is replaced by a patient and thoughtful man who genuinely wants to save his marriage.
Katie is confused, at first, then cautiously optimistic. But it turns out that getting what you wish for is not all it’s cracked up to be. David’s new outlook turns life upside-down and inside-out for the Carrs (and their neighbours). The resulting chaos raises questions of individual guilt for collective sins, and the practical implications of living as our best selves.
(Sidebar: the implications aren’t always pretty.)
Now, this could be heavy to the point of over-powering. But Hornby lightens and illuminates his themes through the lens of pop culture. Katie often compares her life to books or TV or films, but they’re all old because she has no time for any of it. Movies, museums, galleries are things of the past. She’s lost touch with music.
Katie’s few cultural indulgences – a Tom Stoppard play, for example – ‘nourish her soul.’ In fact, these experiences become a barometer of her mental and emotional health.
David, on the other hand, is surrounded by culture in his work. Unfortunately, he detests most of it. His only professional pleasure is ripping apart other people’s creations, and it makes him a small, nasty person.
If you’ve read Hornby’s non-fiction, this obsession is a familiar one. He derives immense joy from pop culture, and it plays a pivotal role in most of his novels. In How to Be Good, it acts as an aspiration, a metric, a remedy, a redemption, an identity, and a catalyst.
I, personally, love Hornby’s thoughtful, affectionate, laser-like focus. It’s almost as enjoyable as his writing. He’s tart and truthful and funny without being precious or dismissive. He’s smart. He empathizes with his characters while satirizing their faults. And he illustrates it all with stellar metaphors.
Here, for the record, is my favourite. Katie is trying to decide whether or not to end her marriage, and she says:
“You don’t ask people with knives in their stomachs what would make them happy; happiness is no longer the point. It’s all about survival; it’s all about whether you pull the knife out and bleed to death or keep it in, in the hope that you might be lucky, and the knife has actually been staunching the blood. You want to know the conventional medical wisdom? The conventional medical wisdom is that you keep the knife in. Really.”
The only problem I had was with the ending. All of a sudden, the plot descends into a hurried summary and half-hearted prognosis. I didn’t expect a neat resolution – Hornby is too talented, too smart for that – but I didn’t expect a race to the finish line, either. It felt rushed and unsatisfying.
I loved the whole so much, though, that I’m willing to forgive a minor transgression.
So read this book. Immediately. Then go out and read Hornby’s non-fiction because, no matter how much I enjoy his novels, I’m totally smitten with his Believer columns.
Either way, Hornby is a writer not to be missed.
Tina Siegal is a Sudbury-born, (temporarily) Toronto-based writer, ESL teacher, and PR professional. She loves writing, reading, animals, music, and chocolate chip cookies.’
Read more Tina at https://writerchicktj.