[Sidebar] July 5 - 12, 2001
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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protagonists Rob (High Fidelity) and Will (About a Boy), both determinedly single and economically footloose, have been replaced by the very married, very responsible Katie, who is reevaluating love and marriage, as well as moral rectitude, after 20 years and two kids.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?

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