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.