Love and marriage
Nick Hornby's B-side
by Clea Simon
Katie Carr is a mess. A National Health Service GP who bases her self-esteem on
her moral goodness, she's not the best candidate for the extramarital affair
she has just begun in a Leeds hotel. Throw in that she's just asked her
husband, the self-anointed "Angriest Man in Holloway," for a divorce without
meaning to during a cell-phone call from her car (she only meant to make sure
he was writing a note for their daughter Molly's teacher) and it's easy to see
why her emotional worldview is out of whack. Then, when her semi-employed
writer husband suddenly undergoes a spiritual transformation at the hands of an
Ecstasy-transformed guru and begins to outdo her on the charity scale (if you
can call giving away their son's computer against his will charity), she's
thrown even farther. Can leaving her marriage save her? Can a depressed female
vicar? Or the strangely warming touch of the guru DJ GoodNews? How to get back
on track, how to "be good," as she puts it, is really all she wants.
Call it "Nick Hornby: The B-Side," since in his third novel the British writer
addresses commitment from the inside as well as the distaff side. Previous
protagonists Rob (High Fidelity) and Will (About a Boy), both
determinedly single and economically footloose, have been replaced by the very
married, very responsible Katie, who is reevaluating love and marriage, as well
as moral rectitude, after 20 years and two kids. The result is both touching
and funny, and if this novel has some creaky bits, it also gratifies by
revealing a writer in progress.
Not that How To Be Good is a radical departure. The issues it dwells
upon, with Hornby's customary easy humor and pop-culture references, are not
that different from those of his previous bestsellers. Whether his characters
are mulling over the terrifying concept of lifelong fidelity or the clutter of
families, questions of intimacy and expectation remain central. "On our wedding
day, the vicar asked us . . . to respect one another's thoughts,
ideas, and suggestions," recalls Katie. "At the time this seemed an
unexceptionable request, easily granted: David, for example, suggests going to
a restaurant, and I say, `OKAY, then.' "
What deepens Katie's experience, what neither Rob nor Will ever had to deal
with, is having to watch someone she loves change over time. "I don't want
David to be David anymore," she admits about her husband, who has grown
aggressively depressed over the years. "I want things to be structurally the
same -- I want him to have fathered my children, I want him to have been
married to me for twenty years. I don't even mind the weight and the bad back.
I just don't want that voice, that tone, that permanent scowl. I want him to
like me, in fact. Is that really too much to ask of a husband?"
When David switches back, becoming overly "good" in a moral sense, if not in
terms of their relationship, the pressures only increase, and Katie loses any
sense of what she wants. Although she strives for some sense of certitude --
bullying the vicar, among others, for answers -- she must finally make peace,
as we all do, with the messy business of life, or at least marriage. She and
David have grown up, if not closer, and that may be the most we can achieve.
But this growth -- by both author and character -- is nearly overridden by the
artificial dominance of the central device, Katie's moral dilemma. Is "being
good" really that important to the average person? After all, when David
finally relaxes his rigid moral stance, admitting that the glow is gone from
his relationship with GoodNews, he seems to become more human. For Katie, the
quest never really falters till the very end. Then an odd final note leaves us
(or, actually, David) hanging in mid air and Katie either liberated or
completely hopeless. For a Hornby book, which usually finds its moral center in
the discovery of adult intimacy, the conventional warm-fuzzy conclusion of
family togetherness clanks down with the weight of doom. Is this the best Katie
can hope for? Is this any good?