Review: How to be Good by Nick Hornby

How to be Good by Nick Hornby book cover
How to be Good (2001) is Nick Hornby's third novel, here mixing his perceptive and amusing commentary on modern relationships with an overarching theme of morality and what it means to be 'good' in today's world. The novel's narrator, Katie Carr is a 'good' person: mother of two, wife to the 'angriest man in Holloway', and a proficient if not exceptional GP. For Katie though, life is not contented: she and husband David, who writes a local newspaper column but to all intents and purposes is a house husband, are in a difficult place; their marriage is failing and Katie feels undervalued, unappreciated and generally in deficit. Her solution? A brief and unsatisfying affair with a fellow practitioner - it is, she reasons, the least she deserves. But, when David's chronic back pain is cured by the enigmatic DJ GoodNews, David has a revelation – the spiritual healer's intense goodness enters him, and Katie is left with a model Samaritan for a husband, one who will gladly give away fistfuls of cash to beggars, donate his children's computers to charity, and invite homeless people to live in his comfortable middle class home. With GoodNews and David installed as permanent do-gooders in her own home, Katie, no longer with the certainty of moral superiority, is forced out of her house and her marriage. The question is, who is truly 'good' and will either's resolve slacken sufficiently to bring them back together?

Confronted with a literal interpretation of 'goodness' Katie, as most people would, finds that she cannot abide such a gear change in her husband and, with the positions in the marriage now reversed, Katie begins to question her own morality. Through Katie's inner conflict, Hornby seeks to address the disparity between the complacent and distant morality that sustains individuals' self-delusional sense of their own 'goodness', and their inability or unwillingness to press their good intentions into action. However, the argument is incredibly simplistic, with little deep exploration of the themes. In truth, How to be Good starts out on an interesting path, with funny and well observed scenes, but as it progresses the novel struggles under the burden of its theme and Hornby's poor execution of it. The plot doesn't seem to carry any tight structure, and gives the impression of a story that was written on the hoof without any overarching structure in place. There is an overriding sense that this is a high concept novel that never really evolved into a cogent piece of writing.

How to be Good is probably best described as a parable; Hornby attempting to mix realism with a fairy tale approach to story-telling. Unfortunately, the execution grates, and the reader is left unsure as to exactly where the novel is pitched. In keeping with this slightly uncomfortable style, the characters are neither wholly believable nor caricatured; they provide no allegory of morality, nor any compelling look at the human psyche and the modern position to morality. On the plus side, How to be Good is a very easy read, with Hornby's prose flowing in a simplistic and pleasant manner - for some readers this will be a light read with a gentle discussion rumbling on throughout.

Ultimately though, the novel peters out and shies away from any substantial comment on the nature of morality or 'goodness', instead shifting focus to the domestic and settling for Katie's conclusion that family is at the centre of her life but that joy and escapism from the mundanities and hardships of the world can be found in art, literature, and music; that without these pleasures life can be a barren and meaningless struggle. This is a fine message and one worthy of consideration, however, in a novel that sets its stall out to consider the nature of 'goodness' How to be Good feels aimless, vapid, and devoid of any satisfying content. Perhaps then, at its heart, the book is about the central relationship, about seeing things from one another's perspective and understanding that, actually, life's not so bad.

I only picked this up as a light read and so wasn't expecting anything particularly searching - even still this felt considerably lacking, and as my first Hornby was a real disappointment.

Useful Links
Reviews of How to be Good on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of How to be Good on Amazon (US)


Anonymous said...

I love how you don't come of as the typical book blogger by only reveiwing new books, or what's considered "popular". Keep up the good work :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks :) I try to float around the literary spectrum as the mood takes me, and really, it's nice to write about something different - how many reviews of Twilight can anyone read, really?

Glad you're enjoying anyway, your blog always looks full of interesting stuff btw.

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Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness don't even get me started on Twilight...

I had enough of it in high school [laughs]. As I read the first four series (to see what all the fuss was about) I was thinking "Where's the character development?" and I wasn't very fond of the narration or dialogue. I couldn't believe the praises it got, then it started getting compared to the Harry Potter series, un-freaking-believable.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Ha, well I can't really comment on Twilight having never read it, but I can understand the appeal for its audience. Not a patch on old Potter though, I'm sure.

Petra said...

I've only read A Long Way Down and it wasn't bad, but nothing special. Though I like the movie High Fidelity.
BTW, I would actually love to read your review of Twilight! :)

And I agree, the comparison with Harry Potter is ridiculous.

Matthew Selwyn said...

This is my first Hornby and it hasn't really inspired me to read on but I don't imagine it's representative of his work judging by other reviews.

You might be disappointed if I ever reviewed Twilight - I can feel a man crush coming on already - ah, Edward shimmery sex muffin.

Petra said...

Maybe you would even end up wearing a "Team Edward" t-shirt. Yes, please read it. :)

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