How to Be Good by Nick Hornby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
You have to feel for Katie, who loses the moral high ground to her caustic, thankless husband right at the start of the book and has to cope with that loss for the entirety of the book. Even before he has a spiritual transformation, she sticks a dagger into their marriage and somehow thinks that because her husband is so miserable and the state of their union so decrepit that it barely matters.
She is wrong.
The Hornby humor is here but buried by the high concept—what if the exact thing you dreamed of regarding your partner changing happened—and it created as many problems as it solved? It’s more the situation that’s the farce because the story itself is about Katie’s incredulity, her bitterness that suddenly she’s the “bad guy,” the shock of having to decide whether the man her husband has become is someone she knows, likes, and can live with.
The answer is “yes” to only one of those three, and here’s where I wish the story spent more time. When a husband or wife in a long-term marriage (or, say, a parent or sibling, with a similarly long-term history) makes a dramatic change, the stages you go through are pretty akin to grief for the loss of the person you knew, even if you didn’t like them much. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—they’re all in here, and well-played. This is an extremely clever observation, and watching Katie struggle with such a seemingly “positive” change in her partner is funny. It really is.
But there’s a poignancy here (because they have kids, who are also struggling right alongside their parents) that makes it hard to go totally for laughs, and then a biting satire (about middle-class London do-gooders like Katie who struggle to walk the walk) that makes it hard to feel for the characters. It’s not a love story, or a hate story, or even a family story. It’s a zoo of a parable, with the characters thrown into one social crucible after another to show their new stripes.
I dunno. Since Katie is the kind-of villain, and the one we’re supposed to identify with, it was hard to feel good about reading the whole book. I felt crappy, in fact, when I finished, now that all my middle-class hypocrisy had been laid bare, skewered and ridiculed. I like the gentle humor of most of Honrnby’s other books more, though I know a lot of people loved this one. Some call it their favorite book, and I’m glad I read it, as a cultural touchstone.
Well, that might be rubbish. I’m glad I read it because it’s Hornby, and he’s always interesting, even when he preaches. But I don't have to like it.
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