This was supposed to be airplane reading, bought before a trip to California. That’s how much I trust Nick Hornby: I figured that any novel of his would be sufficiently entertaining to distract me on a cross-country haul. Oh, well. How to Be Good turns out to be Hornby’s struggle, in novel form, with the morality of being an upper-middle-class Westerner in a world full of woe. And the bad news is, all it does is make you feel terrible.
A writer like Hornby shouldn’t be trapped into writing the same book over and over again — the one with lots of jokes but a poignant grip on the real issues of people’s lives. On the other hand, that’s what I want to read. And there’s a nasty little conflict here: while I defend Hornby’s right to experiment, and even admire his willingness to take on the question of bourgeois morality, the book is not a success.
Problem number one: the narrator, Katie Carr. How to Be Good is stuck deep in her whiny perceptions. Katie is a doctor. She lives in North London among a set of similar well-educated liberals.She has come somehow unstuck, and we enter the narrative as she tells her husband (from a parking-lot in Leeds, on her way to meet her lover) that she wants a divorce. Gosh, it just occurs to me that this is a late-20th-century Madame Bovary. And Hornby, much as I like him, is not Flaubert. (Nor is this 1857, when exposing bourgeois discontent was revolutionary.) Oh, dear. My mind reels as I tick off the resemblances: restless wife, uncomprehending husband, love affair that brings no pleasure, irrelevance of traditional sources of moral guidance. Truly searing is Katie’s visit to an Anglican church service, pathetic in its futility.
Would-be comic relief comes in the form of the character “GoodNews,” a new age “spiritual advisor” who moves in with Katie and her husband David, upsetting the status quo with his clear-sighted but unpalatable prescriptions for a better life. For instance, the Carrs and their neighbors have big houses with spare bedrooms; there are teenagers living on the street nearby; therefore the teenagers should be invited to live in the spare bedrooms. Hornby doesn’t spare anyone the social discomfiture, the liberal guilt and self-doubt, the horrible tapdance of accomodation and resentment and incomprehension between the do-gooders and recipients.
And aside from making us all feel terrible — OK, maybe it’s justified — it’s not clear just what Hornby has in mind. Sure, our lives are full of material inequities. Sure, we could do more to help people near and far. Yes, possibly the best way to do this is one kindness at a time, as Katie and David finally understand. And, yes, it’s difficult to balance one’s responsibilities to oneself, one’s family, and the wider world. But there must be a way to raise all of these questions that doesn’t leave the reader baffled and depressed. I even feel guilty that I disliked the book.