Review – Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

I loved this. It reminded me, very much, of Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Build a Girl’, which I reviewed earlier this year. There are obvious differences; Hornby’s novel starts in the Sixties, not the early Nineties, and it covers a much longer time period. But that’s not why I liked it more. I think what swung it for me was the well-rounded cast of characters. Hornby does comedy well, and pop culture exceptionally; that’s a given, for anybody who has ever read one of his novels, or even one of his articles in The Believer. But he can also twist your heart right in your chest. For example, this, about one of the main characters and his horrible wife:

‘What was he doing with her? How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but ‘love’ would have to do for now.’

Or this, about Tony, a young man who wanted to be conventional, at a time when being a homosexual was anything but. Tony marries June, and they are lovely both individually and collectively, but of course their life together is far from easy. Hornby keeps it relatively light, but he doesn’t shy away from complexities altogether, creating moments of pain and beauty like this one, at their anniversary dinner, when Tony says:

‘You’re so patient, and kind, and loving, and I don’t know why.’
‘I love you,’ she said with a shrug and a little smile – not a sad smile, exactly, but a smile conveying complications.’

The star, though, the runaway star of the novel, is Barbara (or Sophie, if you prefer). From the moment she runs out of Blackpool (almost literally), she wins over almost everyone, but in a completely unirritating and authentic way, with as many adolescent mistakes and false starts as triumphs.

At its most basic, the novel charts her rise from teenage beauty queen to a Lucille Ball-type star of BBC teatime telly. Hornby uses the format to poke fun at the naysayers of light entertainment, but also to attempt to convey the energy of the Sixties, and the desire for newness, brightness, following the overdue end to post-war austerity:

‘Was it really only young people who wanted to pain over the misery of the last quarter of a century? The first thing she did when she moved in was strip off the brown wallpaper, and then she paid a man to paint the place white. As soon as she had the money and the time, she’d find things to hang on the walls. She didn’t care what these things were, as long as they were yellow and red and green and there were no sailing ships or castles and there was nothing with four legs anywhere.’

This success spree, though, eventually runs out. And it’s good that it does, because it’s this that allows us to see how the characters cope, not only with success, but with its aftermath. I won’t say anything more, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who might read it (and I hope you do) – but as much as anything, it’s this which gives the novel its heart.

****

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Random Bookish Thoughts – 22 December 2015 – Festive Edition!

It’s Christmas time! I don’t finish work for the holidays until tomorrow evening, so I’ve had a bit of a hard time getting into the festive spirit, but I have at least been in a bit of a social whirlwind over the past few weeks – as is right and proper for December.

All of that does, unfortunately, mean not much time for reading, and even less time for reviewing. Although looking at my last post, which was (whoops) about six weeks ago, I have finished ten books since then, namely:

  1. Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig. ‘Enjoyed’ is the wrong word for this, but I’m really glad I read it.
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman. Really didn’t like this, which disappointed me greatly as I loved Good Omens and liked American Gods
  3. The first three books in the Thursday Next series, Jasper Fforde. These were a re-read, and in fact I have read them many times since first being introduced to Jasper Fforde by my English teacher when I was a teenager.
  4. Virginia Woolf in Manhattan, Maggie Gee. It took me quite a while to decide that this was a complicated three-star read – it would have been three and a half, if I let myself award half stars. I’ll try to review this one separately, as it was interesting and charming and probably deserves more than two sentences.
  5. The Vegetarian, Han Kang. This one definitely needs its own review. Unlike anything else I’ve read this year, possibly ever.
  6. Cameron at 10, Anthony Seldon & Peter Snowden. Probably a bit niche for most readers, this is a detailed and authorised look at the UK’s most recent Coalition Government. Good for a politics geek like me, although even I found it a bit heavy-going in places.
  7. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. I know, I’m late to the party on this one, but I did like it. Not as much as the rest of the internet, but plenty.
  8. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith. More interesting and convincing for its portrayal of life in 1950s Russia, than as a pure crime thriller, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m currently reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and think it may be one of those rare occasions where the (superb) Amazon TV series is better than the book. That may just be because I watched it before I read it – I’ll deliver my final verdict once I’ve finished the book and had more time to reflect.

All of those take me up to about 85 books year to date, so not quite at my original goal of 100. I still think I will take a break from numbers-driven reading goals next year; I want to participate in a couple of challenges (particularly the Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event), and I have my eye on the idea of finally reading War and Peace ahead of the BBC’s adaptation in January (not sure you can really have your eye on an idea, but you know what I mean). Plus next year looks like being a big year work-wise, so I’d rather not commit to any huge reading goals. (See how I’m getting my excuses in good and early for 2016??)

Anyways, I’m heading back to the family home for five days over the holidays, and looking forward to lots of uninterrupted reading time, in between time catching up with schoolfriends and the family of course. And hopefully even time to fit in a few more blog posts by the end of the year as well! Merry Christmas, happy holidays, enjoy Winterval, delete as appropriate!