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What if a sense of humour is like hair –something a lot of men lose as they get older?

April 24, 2014 9 comments

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby 2001. French title: La bonté: mode d’emploi.

If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her) and split up. I wouldn’t argue with the synopsis. We’re nothing special.

book_club_2Katie Carr is about forty, married to David. They have two children Tom and Molly. She’s a GP, he’s a columnist, stay-at-home father, would-be writer. According to Katie, David is chronically angry and spiteful. She’s come to the breaking point and has a fling at a work conference. She’s ready to have a divorce and tells David but he refuses to hear her. At the moment, David’s got a back ache and to mock his GP wife, he consults with a healer, GoodNews. GoodNews heals his back, David feels better. He brings Molly there, to heal her eczema, it works. That alone goes against Katie’s every belief. When Katie tells him about her affair with Stephen, he leaves the house and spends a few days at GoodNews’s place. He comes home cured from his angriness and ready to be good. So David goes from perpetually angry to beatifically good and helpful. GoodNews and he are almost joined to the hip and Katie can only stare in confusion:

David has become a sort of happy-clappy right-on Christian version of Barbie’s Ken, except without Ken’s rugged good looks and contoured body.

David has lost his edge, his sense of humour. Everything turns crazy from then on. It’s not totally crazy, it’s just a liberal deciding to put what he preaches into practice. Katie feels emotions she’d rather not. In her mind, she’s a doctor, her job is to help people. She’s a good person already. David is high on a brand new kind of logic, one that makes her mundane thoughts sound selfish. One day, they’re having Katie’s parents for lunch. She cooks a meal, she’s about to serve it when David demonstrates that they should give it to the homeless shelter and have frozen lasagne instead:

‘I have to give this away,’ says David. ‘I went to the freezer to get the stock out and I saw all that stuff in there and … I just realized that I can’t sustain my position any more. The homeless …’ ‘FUCK YOUR POSITION! FUCK THE HOMELESS!’ Fuck the homeless? Is this what has become of me? Has a Guardian-reading Labour voter ever shouted those words and meant them in the whole history of the liberal metropolitan universe?

She hates herself for these words afterward. Katie represents the good-thinking liberals, the ones that have money but pretend they despise the conservatives but live like them anyway. In French, we have an expression for this, it’s called the gauche-caviar. (The caviar liberals) Hornby mocks Katie and David and corners them, dares them to act upon their beliefs. It could be patronising but it’s not, thanks to Hornby’s ferocious sense of humour. We’re in Katie’s head. She sounds real, the woman next door. See her analysis of her affair with Stephen and its lack of drama:

OK, I’m just about attractive enough for Stephen to want to sleep with me, but when it comes to jealous rages and dementedly possessive behaviour and lovelorn misery, I simply haven’t got what it takes. I’m Katie Carr, not Helen of Troy, or Patti Boyd, or Elizabeth Taylor. Men don’t fight over me. They saunter over on a Sunday evening and make weak puns.

Hornby_EnglishShe’s a rather good person, selfish as we all are. She loves humans in general but rebels when she has to act and actually do something concrete to help. A lot of us are like Katie. She’s “normal”; she wants to protect her family, her comfort and if she thinks of the poor homeless, it’s with pity but no intention to go further. She’s funny and natural. She watches as her children pick a side, Molly turning into a good-thinking little girl and Tom rebelling against it, feeling his father is rather phony.

That’s one side of the story. Their marriage is still sinking, just not for the same reason as before. How to Be Good is also the exploration of a common marriage and a lot of the details mentioned in there are terribly realistic. When you’ve been married for a few years, some arguments or feelings or attitudes, good or bad, ring a bell. It’s sad but so funny. Katie has a way with words and despite the lightness of her expression, she delves into serious questions. What’s your identity when you’ve been married for long? How do you salvage a relationship? What about the children? Is it even realistic to dream of a fresh start?

How to Be Good is deceptive. Yes, you laugh a lot when you read. But behind the curtain of the humour, there’s a serious questioning about relationships and politics. An excellent combination.

Thanks Guy for recommending it!

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