There is something special about those really good writers that we might not expect. While many can turn a phrase, use beautiful imagery and create whole worlds with few words, the real skill is writing in such a way that we forget that we are reading at all. This is the great talent of Nick Hornby, the writer who is well known for novels like High Fidelity and About a Boy is almost a guaranteed best seller these days. Picking up Funny Girl we at least have some clue of what to expect – a good, and easy read in the most positive sense of the word.
Cue Barbara, the 60s blonde bombshell who would much rather be funny than be pretty. She’s not dumb per se, but she is naive and sweet and confident all the same time. Stuck in Blackpool where the highlight of her life could very well be winning the Miss Blackpool 1964 title, Barbara makes the decision to move to London and become a comic actress like her idol Lucy. No credentials except some time on the cosmetics counter at the local department store and as much time as she could get watching and listening to her favourite comedy shows it epitomizes the dream of many who wish to make it big.
Through a turn of events that one could surely predict without reading much beyond her appearance, Barbara has reinvented herself as ‘Sophie’ and lands an interview for a BBC comedy show. Before long she has hijacked it entirely with her charm and wit. Here the novel becomes very much a book of many as we are introduced to writing partners Tony and Bill, co-star Clive and producer Dennis. Each have their own lives and tales which intertwine with the fortunes of their hugely successful show Barbara (and Jim) and it is no longer Sophie’s story but theirs collectively.
It’s not that I didn’t like Sophie, she was lovable and charming in her own way, it’s just those around her were battling their own demons which became more interesting then Sophie’s success fast. Tony and Bill I found the most intriguing, a mix of latent conservativeness that comes with the time they lived, potential homosexuality and the artistic passion and drive to push the envelope first in the show and later in their own lives.
As metaphors go, the blatant equivocation between the marriage of the characters on the show and the marriage of Tony and Bill through their writing felt initially too simple, there is nothing new in telling one story hidden as one tells another, and there was very little attempt to make the reader think at all on this one. It served its purpose, drawing me into the lives of the writers, and making me feel connected to their time and place. The personal voices of the characters were well brought out through conversations between them and I felt I really understood some of the challenges others faced well before I was even born.
This doesn’t feel like a novel about Sophie, or Tony, Bill or Clive; it doesn’t seem to be about oppression really either. At its simplest, it is a book about people. It tells us to live our lives as we choose, to appreciate the present moment and not be caught up in the past or the what ifs of the future. It acts in defense of a comfortable, normal life where it is okay for one to be entertained by simple and trivial things, the common man can enjoy a sitcom or novel if they choose.
All this makes a pretty story, easy enough to tie in a bow and finish in ways that are supposed to you leave you warm and fuzzy. That’s all well and good but I wish Hornby had tried to do more, the book is as mild in temperament as the comedy it espouses. In a way that will make sense once you have finished, this book was both something and nothing and it had the potential to be so much more something then Hornby seems to have even tried to convey. In the debate between mere entertainment and thought, perhaps that means I find myself prone to thought when the opportunity arises.
Book Conversation Points:
The era the novel was set is often called a ‘golden age’ of light entertainment like sitcoms, why do you think this is the case?
Do you feel that writers have a duty to challenge and think and motivate us? Or is it good enough to merely entertain?
The novel foreshadows a future where toilet humour and crassness is common place. Is our reality TV, YouTube and social media as terrifying as Vernon Whitfield made it out to be?
Did you identify strongly with any of the characters? If so why?
Please join us next month for Karen Joy Fowler’s latest, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.