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A Massive Disappointment...
on 4 June 2001
This has been one of the most eagerly-awaited books of the year. Nick Hornby's excellent previous novels High Fidelity and About A Boy have left readers looking forward to another high-quality novel. The author's ability to translate apparently ordinary characters and situations into hilarious and observational fiction has been a trademark of his success. So all this only serves to make it more difficult to comprehend how Nick Hornby has now come up with such a lousy book.
The story sounds great - Katie Carr, the story's narrator, is unhappy with her marriage to David. She has become tired of his constantly angry moods. She has decided to end the marriage and she even begins an affair with another man. It is just at this moment that David decides to change his ways and become 'good'. And it's this 'good' word that becomes the theme for the rest of the story. Is Katie a good person? Has David now become a good person? What does it take to be a good person?
The opening two chapters of How To Be Good are pretty solid. There are the usual Hornby trademarks of funny observations and a good pace develops. But things start to go rocky from chapter three and continue to nose dive. A big problem with How To Be Good is that it is just plain ridiculous and annoying. David visits a spiritual healer by the name of GoodNews, to cure his backache. GoodNews then becomes an annoying feature for the rest of the book. He moves into the marital home and David becomes a convert. Before long, Katie has to watch whilst her husband and GoodNews embark on a number of 'good' campaigns, such as giving away their money and possessions. They even approach their neighbours in the expectation that they'll take in homeless people so they too can be good. And, naturally, their neighbours are just as keen to be saintly and so some agree to the idea.
Hornby writes okay from a woman's viewpoint and Katie should have been a truely likable character if she hadn't been allowed to fall into the category of doormat. The whole story is a circus of unconvincing and very unfunny events. GoodNews uses his mystical power to cure various ailments. David joins in with many 'good' deeds that are simply insane. Katie has to lie back and accept the fact that homeless and unstable people are going to be popping in and out of her home from now on, because doing so is a 'good' thing. Katie's two children, Tom and Molly, take sides with whoever is their favourite parent. To be fair, Tom adopts a realistic enough attitude and resents the entire 'let's all go mad' lifestyle. However, Molly is another character who behaves as only a fictional character ever could. Katie allows her daughter a level of authority within the home that is completely unrealistic.
There are some okay moments - flashes of wit that are undeniably Hornby-quality. But they're too brief and too rare. In summary, How To Be Good is a silly, unrealistic and mostly unfunny book and to have to say that about a Nick Hornby novel is unexpected.
A massive disappointment.