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

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!

  1. April 24, 2014 at 3:38 am

    AS you know, I loved this book. I think it’s a very clever look at the shifts of power in a marriage. BTW gauche-caviar has an equivalent, Champagne Socialism.


    • April 24, 2014 at 10:38 pm

      Champagne Socialism? I like that one.
      You always seem to know the books I should read. I’m looking forward to reading Bunker.


  2. April 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

    I clearly have things to learn about Nick Hornby. Ever since About a Boy and the film that was made out of it I thought he was some kind of male version of chick lit. Of course, not having read the book or seen the film meant I was bound to get it wrong, so thanks for enlightening me. Still I think what I’ll mostly take away from your review is that you have a “Beach and Public Transports Books” category on your blog?! That’s funny.


    • April 24, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      I’ve also read Slam, High Fidelity and another one about suicidal people but How to Be Good is the best. Clearly, he’s not the new Flaubert, his style isn’t sophisticated. But he’s extremely good at picking every day life.

      I have a Beach & Public Transport category to point out light & good reads. We all need them from time to time, good and light is precious for avid readers. The light is easy enough to find but the combination of light & good isn’t so easy. When I travel, I’m more about what I’m going to read than what I’m going to wear. -:)


  3. Brian Joseph
    April 24, 2014 at 11:18 am

    The ideas and themes as you describe them are interesting to me. Agreed that both the subjects of politics and marriage.

    So we have gauche-caviar and Champagne Socialism, in America we have Limousine Liberalism.


    • April 24, 2014 at 10:48 pm

      Limousine Liberalism, that has to be American. Limousines are not as frequent here.
      In French, liberalisme has the opposite meaning, it means “wild” capitalism. (It’s simplification.)
      This Hornby is well worth reading.


  4. May 20, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I get a bit suspicious of the term champagne socialism, which can be used to shut down someone’s position simply by virtue of them not living in abject poverty rather than engaging with their argument. It’s definitely the equivalent of gauche-caviar though.

    The thing is, we can’t be perfect. We might care, but we can’t care all the time. That makes Katie rather sympathetic, and it sounds like that’s how Nick presents her. She has principles, but not to the point of giving away her own dinner, not to the point of sainthood. Who does?

    Count me as another by the way who loves the beaches and public transport category. Sadly I burn up like an old-school pre-Twilight vampire on the beach, so for me it’s more just a public transport category…


    • May 20, 2014 at 10:21 pm

      Katie’s voice rings true. She’s not a bad person, just human. I’m a bit suspicious about people aiming at sainthood. It’s trying to more non-human (a saint is not a human anymore) and how can you stay human while putting your energy at becoming someone who’s not human?

      I’m sorry your skin is not made for stays on the beach. I can change the category into “beach, sunburn and public transport” 🙂 Anyway, with your job, you spend more time in public transports than on the beach.


  1. December 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm

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