"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review #1: How to be Good, by Nick Hornby

Me: Hey, can I borrow this?
JB: Sure.
Me: How was it?
JB: I dunno. I never read it.

This from the man who reads everything. That should have been my first warning.

From Nick Hornby comes what all the fancy newspapers called "a page turner" (Washington Times) and "fearless" (San Francisco Chronicle), but what I call a slow slog of a mess about two pretty horrible people - actually, make that two and a half - and the breakdown of their marriage.

Katie Carr is a doctor living in a gentrified part of London, married to David, who is a columnist in possession of an acerbic wit, and has two young children, Tom and Molly. On the surface, they're doing fine: they have a nice house, Katie's bringing home a decent paycheck, Tom and Molly certainly don't want for the latest electronic, and Katie feels that, as a doctor, she's helping the world and is generally a good person. That is until the day that she has an affair with a man named Stephen, and realizes she's unhappy in her marriage. She eventually confesses to David, and rather than David granting her the divorce that she asks for, he instead has a come to Jesus moment where he realizes that he needs to be a better person, giving up his column, taking in a nut job named DJ GoodNews who apparently healed David's bad back with good thoughts, and forcing the children to give all their possessions to the abused women's shelter. Oh, and insisting that the neighbors each take in a homeless teenager to help solve the world's problems. Katie, thrown for quite the loop in the face of David's seemingly total 180, eventually moves out (but only for a month, and only at night, because she doesn't want the kids to know), and tries to reevaluate her marriage. Katie eventually moves back in, GoodNews is given six months to get out, and they decide to make a go of it. The end.

I had about eleventy billion issues with this book and I don't even know where to begin. From the reviews I read, I think it was meant as an exploration of what it means to be "good". Are we good if we donate to the soup kitchen at Thanksgiving, or are we only good if we donate all year and volunteer there, even in the summer months? Are we good people if we go to church, or are we only good if we go to church and really, truly believe? Are we good if we stay in a toxic marriage for the sake of the kids and our vows? And if we aren't good, are we then, by definition, bad? How can we quantify "goodness"? And I suppose the book did explore those themes, but my word, I couldn't get past the characters. Not a single one of them were in any way likable. Not even Tom and Molly, who, as children, weren't really all that terrible, but by the end of the story, I wanted to slap every single person involved. Every single one!

I don't know. Perhaps I project too much of my own experiences on to what I read. But this book - to me, anyway - was more about the breakdown of a marriage and the complete and utter apathy of the two people involved than it was about how to be "good". David comes across as kind of a jerk in the beginning, and then, even though he's supposed to have turned "good", he becomes an even bigger jerk as the book progresses. I can't remember the last time I read such a selfish and myopic character. And although Katie professed to love David, or even the idea of David, I got the feeling that deep down, she didn't care whether he stayed or left. And while it's difficult at times to like your children, as any parent can attest, I never felt anything resembling affection from Katie towards the kids, and even, at times, felt like she would have been perfectly fine walking away were it not for the social and professional stigma of abandoning your children.

If Hornby meant to write about a marriage falling apart, or on the verge of falling apart, there are ways to do that (Landline, Indiscretion, and We All Sleep in the Same Room come to mind). If Hornby meant to write a book about what it means to be "good", there are ways to do that, too. This, however? Not one of them.

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