July 28, 2001

“How to Be Good,” by Nick Hornby 

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Hartford Courant

Fans of Nick Hornby’s first novel, the decidedly hip and male “High Fidelity,” initially may be perplexed as to why Hornby is now writing about humdrum grown-ups from a female point of view.

Katie, the admittedly self-absorbed narrator, breaks up with her husband on the first page. She warns us, “If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her), and split up. We’re nothing special.”

Furthermore, we’re told that the marriage we’re about to hear about is not like a film and is, therefore, instead a series of “dull, superficial arguments.” At this point, you might be inclined to put down the book and go see a movie, but don’t. Hornby will soon break out the wit.

Katie’s a doctor — “I’m a good person, I’m a doctor” — and her husband, David, is a newspaper columnist billed as the “Angriest Man in Holloway.” His anger is directed at homeopaths, restaurant critics, old people on buses who don’t have their money ready and the like. These rants seem strangely emasculated.

“I’m the man,” Katie points out, “I’m the daddy.” And she, more than David, seems like a guy from a Hornby novel as she wisecracks her way through the pitfalls of popular culture.

They have two children, a boy and a girl, and their married life in London is “a gentle, middle-class version of brutality and degradation.”

“I want us to live a better life,” Katie tells David.
“And how do we do that?”
“I don’t know.”

So it goes until the appearance of Dr. GoodNews, a hippie faith healer David invites to live with the family. GoodNews has issues with modern amenities, such as beds and dishwashers, and talks like a “nutter” half of the time, but occasionally points out things that are uncomfortably true, such as how the possessions game can make people spoiled and uncaring.

After David’s back pain is healed by GoodNews, he quits his column and gives up a novel he was working on.

“Why?” Katie wants to know, referring to the column. She couldn’t care less about his god-awful novel.

“Because I’m not angry anymore.”
“You’re not angry anymore.”
“About anything?”
“No, it’s all gone.”

Worse yet, David is suddenly full of sanctimonious schemes. He and GoodNews collaborate on a self-help book titled “How to Be Good.” He forces the children to give up toys and to befriend repellent peers they don’t like. A street kid named Monkey joins their household. David even rallies his neighbors to take in homeless teen-agers.

“We’ve all been living the wrong life,” he says, “and I want to put that right.”

Katie — a good person, a doctor — can only sputter an obscenity. David thinks he is like Erin Brockovich, the character Julia Roberts played in the eponymous movie, sacrificing family life in pursuit of a higher good. Katie thinks he is daft.

So what does it mean to be a good person, to lead a good life? This is, of course, a good question, the type of good question that good books have been asking for many years.

Hornby doesn’t pretend to know the answer, or even to have especially strong opinions on the subject, except that he is sure false piousness is not the way to go.

I wanted much more acerbic wit from Katie, and much less of her grim determination to be a good grown-up, yet I still find myself recommending “How to Be Good” to friends as an ambitious example of entertaining literature.

Contrary to Katie’s protestations, this story is far better than a movie. It doesn’t just skip along to the neurotic tune of modern life, but incisively examines our relationships with each other and morality and popular culture, and though Hornby may not find any definitive answers, he certainly finds the humor.


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