May 25, 2009

How to be Good by Nick Hornby

Katie Carr, doctor and mother of two, has been married to David for nearly two decades. David is a cynical, bitter, sarcastic man, who writes a column called The Angriest Man in Holloway– a title he does his best to live up to. Katie has recently become involved with another man, Stephan, but her affair is more a symptom than a cause of crisis in their marriage. One day, David decides to see a faith healer by the name of DJ GoodNews about his back pain, his main reason being that this will certainly annoy Katie. But after meeting him a few times, not only does his pain heal, but he becomes a new man. David becomes…good. Piously, righteously, save-the-homeless and end-world-hunger good. And Katie discovers that this new David is not necessarily easier to live with than the old one.

I was so relieved to love How to be Good. I can think of more than one person whose taste is normally similar to mine who strongly disliked it, and of quite a few who found it unmemorable at best. By now my brain crush on Nick Hornby is no secret, but I don’t want you to think that this predisposed me to love this book. If anything, my expectations were higher. But to my delight, they were more than met.

This being Nick Hornby, there are several laugh out loud funny moments. But don’t let that and the slightly absurd plot summary fool you: How to be Good deals with serious topics, and there are quite a few moving moments as well. The story is about relationships and anger and disappointment, about quiet everyday despair, about how people can fail to communicate, about how life can simply bring us down.

And it’s also about…how we choose to live our lives, basically. I think one of the reasons why I connected with this book so strongly is because the kind of sensibility behind it is quite close to my own. Some of the questions Katie struggles with after David’s transformation are questions I’ve asked myself. Katie has always thought of herself as a Good Person – it’s one of the reasons why she became a doctor, actually – but her husband’s sudden urge to convince their neighbours to adopt homeless kids forces her to confront herself: she cares about homelessness, but how far is she willing to go? How can this abstract concern be translated into everyday actions that are practical and doable, and that she can fit into her life? How willing is she to change her life for the sake of others? How guilty should she feel for the comfort she enjoys while others suffer? How much time and energy can she afford to devote to the world’s problems, and how much to her own and her family’s?

And then there’s the ending, which was just perfect. Katie has no big epiphany – you can tell all along that this isn’t that kind of book – but she does come to a realization (and this is not a spoiler, worry not):
And it is only when I have shut the bedroom door for the third or fourth time on my husband and children to find out precisely how Vanessa Bell’s life was better than my own that I work it out. It is the act of reading itself I miss, the opportunity to retreat further and further from the world until I have found some space, some air that isn’t stale, that hasn’t been breathed by my family a thousand times already. Janet’s bedsit seemed enormous when I moved into it, enormous and quiet, but this book is so much bugger than that. And when I’ve finished it I’ll start another one, and that might be even bigger, and then another, and I will be able to keep extending my house until it becomes a mansion, full of rooms where they can’t find me... And it’s not just reading, either, but listening, hearing something other than my children’s TV programmes and my husband’s pious drone and the chatter chatter chatter in my head.
Yes! Yes, yes, yes. It’s no miracle, it won’t fix a broken marriage or the world’s problems, but the, ah, the emotional nourishment we get from books and music and art in general can make such a big difference in our lives. This is why I read. And I strongly believe that if we have access to other experiences through literature, we are far less likely to become dissatisfied with our lives.

Of course, it’s not at all surprising to come across this way of thinking in a Nick Hornby book. And it’s not surprising that I loved it. This reminds me that I have to get myself a copy of John Carey’s What Good Are The Arts?, which he recommended in one of his Stuff I’ve Been Reading columns.

More memorable bits:
We said nothing for a while. He was in a North London kitchen saying nothing, and I was in a car park in Leeds saying nothing, and I was suddenly sickeningly struck by how well I knew this silence, the shape and feel of it, all of its spiky little corners. (And of course, it’s not really silence at all. You can hear the expletive-ridden chatter of your own anger, the blood that pounds in your ears, and on this occasion, the sound of a Fiat Uno reversing into a parking space next to yours. )

I suddenly have a very deep yearning to go and see a Chinese film at the Screen of the Green – the more Chinese it is, in fact, the better I would like it. That is another chamber of my heart that shows no electric activity—the chamber that used to flicker into life when I saw a film that moved me, or read a book that inspired me, or listened to music that made me want to cry. I closed that chamber myself, for all the usual reasons. And now I seem to have made a pact with some philistine devil: if I don’t attempt to re-open it, I will be allowed just enough energy and optimism to get through a working day without wanting to hang myself.

You see, what I really want, and what I’m getting with Stephen, is the opportunity to rebuild myself from scratch. David’s picture of me is complete now, and I’m pretty sure neither of us likes it much; I want to rip the page out and start again on a fresh sheet, just like I used to do when I was a kid and had messed a drawing up. It doesn’t even matter who the fresh sheet is, really, so it’s beside the point whether I like Stephen, or whether he knows what to do with me in bed, or anything like that. I just want his rapt attention when I tell him that my favourite book is Middlemarch, and I just want that feeling I get with him, of having not gone wrong yet.

It seems to me now that the plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don’t need to be a heroin addict or a performance poet to experience extremity. You just have to love someone.
Other Opinions:
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
Out of the Blue
Naked Without Books

(Did I miss yours? Let me know.)


  1. I havent read Hornby, but I need to.
    'my brain crush on Nick Hornby is no secret, but I don’t want you to think that this predisposed me to love this book'- thats great!

  2. i want to read Nick Hornby too, but I want to start with Hi Fidelity first. Great review though.

  3. I haven't read this book by Hornby though I've read others. I have a feeling I'll be going out this week and picking this one up. =)

  4. I read this when it first came out liked it a lot. I couldn't understand why so many people were nonplussed by it. I just love how Hornby combines hilarity with real human drama, and he did it very, very well in this book.

  5. Count me among those who still hasn't picked up a Hornby book to read. This does sound like a good one. Just from your description of Katie, I can see a bit of myself in her. And I love the excerpt about the need to get away.

    Great review, Nymeth!

  6. Oh, now this does sound good! I bought this at a thrift shop awhile ago, just because I haven't read any Hornby yet but knowing that people raved about him. There's a lot that I can relate to with this book. I'm thinking it might have to be bumped up higher on my TBR list ...

  7. I got this one amongst, my classic Penguin covers collection, really looking forward to getting around to reading it! :)

  8. I'm not familiar with Hornby's work, but your review has piqued my interest.

  9. Naida: I thought I might as well admit it :P

    Scrap Girl: Both are excellent, but I do think High Fidelity is even better :)

    Vasilly: yay! I hope you enjoy it :D

    Teresa: I don't understand it either! And I don't even think it's all that different from his others. And yes, I really agree that he combines them perfectly.

    Literary Feline: I could see quite a bit of myself in her too. And thank you! I hope you enjoy Nick Hornby when you get to him.

    Betty and Boo's Mommy: Like I was telling Wendy, I could really relate to Katie, even if some of her choices and life circumstances are different from mine. I hope you enjoy the book!

    Bart: I just love those covers. I actually got the copy of Adrian Mole I mooched in the mail just today :D

    Bermudaonion: You have to give him a try! He's so good.

  10. I haven't read Hornby yet either. This review, and the quotes you chose, have totally convinced me that I must. I know I've seen his books in the library; I'll have to investigate!

  11. Crap. This review just left me so incredibly sad. But to explain would probably be TMI. I think I'd like to read this though. I haven't tried any of his fiction...I think I worry about how crushed I would be if I didn't like it, when I love his essays soooooo much. But really, how silly is that, huh?

    So cool that you mentioned What Good Are the Arts? That's one of the books I most want to read from the extensive lists I made from reading his columns. Unfortunately our library system doesn't have it, so I'll just have to buy it sometime. Gee, wouldn't that be horrible? ;)

  12. I really liked this book, and the dilemmas married people face. I liked how it ended (I don't want to give anything away)

    Nice review, especially the line about how books can fulfill a substantial part of a person's need to experience new things.

  13. Another one to hunt for at the library methinks...

  14. I've never read Hornby but as usual one of your reviews makes me feel like I should. I agree that reading really enriches our lives. It's certainly saved me from going crazy a few times. lol.

    I'm really glad you enjoyed this one so much.

  15. I haven't read anything by this author yet, but I do have a copy of About a Boy which I mooched lately.

    This book sounds good, and I love the passage you share with us about reading. So true!

  16. I'm in love with this book and I haven't even read it yet!!! Loved that passage about very true it is. Excellent recap of this story and you've really heightened my excitement in wanting to read this!

  17. I really liked this book as's not my first favorite (that honor goes to the Polysyllabic Spree) but it's near the top of the list.

  18. Your review has a way making me want to read everything you posted here. On the verge on sounding "standard", it's a great review, Ana!!

  19. I'm glad you liked it, Nymeth. You already know that I wasn't a big fan of it, but to be honest, it was so long that I'm not sure what exactly I didn't like about it. I think I found the whole premise annoying.

    Anyway, I'd still like to give Hornby's fiction another try. Maybe eventually I'll work my way around to giving this another try.

  20. I think I would like this, but I have to go back and finish Shakespeare Wrote for Money first.

  21. Meghan: I hope you enjoy his books! I've always liked him, but in the past year or so he's become one of my very favourite authors.

    Debi: Sorry to hear it left you sad :( And that's not silly at all. But I don't think his fiction will let you down. And yep...horrible indeed :P

    raidergirl3: I really liked the ending too.

    Kailana: Yep :P

    Cath, I hope you find it!

    Dar: I SO owe my sanity to reading, lol. I hope you enjoy Hornby's books!

    Melody: About a Boy is excellent too! I look forward to your thoughts on it :)

    Staci, I think you'll fall in love with the book itself too! It's so funny, so sad, and so insightful. That's Nick Hornby for you :P

    Bybee: I think my absolute favourite is Shakespeare Wrote for Money.

    Alice: Aww, thank you!

    J.S. Peyton: Sometimes that just happens, and it can be hard to even explain why. But do give his fiction another try sometime! Maybe High Fidelity?

    Jeane: Do finish that one! It's another favourite of mine. Though to be honest it seems that I love everything the man does :P

  22. Great review! This is the one Hornby book I've never wanted to read - the back desription always struck me as being a bit too chick-lit. But your review makes it out to be much more serious than what I'd suspected.

  23. I was transported by this book. Your review made me want to read it all over again.

  24. You've reminded me that I really want to read About a Boy soon! Why can't there be infinite time?

    Since I've only read two Hornby books, I'm torn right now. Hopefully I'll find more like High Fidelity. You haven't read A Long Way Down, right? Sounds like the reception to this one is kind of like that of A Long Way Down.

  25. I have this sitting on my shelf, but have also heard that it was only mediocre. Maybe it's time to make up my own mind! :-)

  26. Joanne: A plot summary like Man-is-forever-changed-by-faith-healer would normally send me running :P But this is Nick Hornby! So I thought I'd trust him, and it paid. Despite all the funny moments, it definitely is a serious book.

    Jessica: I think I'll be returning to it as well :)

    Trish: How I wish there could be infinite time! I loved About a Boy, and I hope you do too. I still haven't read A Long Way Down, but you're right, it doesn't seem to be a favourite either. I hope I do enjoy it, though!

    Joanna, I hope you enjoy it :)

  27. I really liked this one, though I found it hard at times to read - it really leads to self-examination (and if you're in a long-term relationship... well...)

    One thing I did love was the casual intimation that Dick (from "High Fidelity") has moved in with Laura and is living in their street. This is the kind of silly little detail that makes my day!

  28. I'd kind of wondered about this one too, having heard both the good and bad reviews. You made it sound great though! I love the quotes you included in your review and I think I'm convinced now that I need to try it for myself.

  29. I've never read a book by Hornby, but my husband really likes him. This book sounds right up my alley though. I am putting this one on my wish list.

  30. I've only read About a boy but this one sounds excellent.
    I love the quotes you picked out especially the one about the act of reading - very true

  31. You know, I didn't love this book - and I really wanted to - but it's been so long I just can't remember what struck me about it! However, I will say that I think that High Fidelity is one of the best and most honest books I've ever read.

  32. K: I can't believe I completely missed that! That's awesome! Now I want to read it again and pay attention.

    tanabata: I hope you read it and join the "loved it" side of the divide :P

    Zibilee: oooh, you have to read Hornby! The whole world does, in fact :P

    Alexa: Yes, I really think it's very true. I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it!

    Kate: That honesty is one of the things I love the most about his books.

  33. I really loved this book, too. In fact, I've yet to read anything by Hornby that I didn't enjoy!

  34. I'm glad you enjoyed this and are still loving Nick Nornby. My favourite will probably always be High Fidelity, but I pretty much love everything he has ever written including this one!


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