How to Be Good (review)

Nick Hornby - How to Be Good (2001)

Nick Hornby, How to Be Good (London: Penguin, 2001), 244pp. ★★★ (3 stars)

I got this as a Christmas present from Mum and Dad: unusual, since in Australia I’ve got so many unread books that I never read anything that people give me, and I think they know that. But they rightly guessed that books, of which I have few here, would cheer me up in Japan, where I am thoroughly miserable, and they were right.

It’s fitting, then, that the protagonist of this book comes closest to happiness at the end of the story, when, reading a biography of Vanessa Bell, she realises:

bq. It is the act of reading itself I miss, the opportunity to retreat further and further from the world until I have found some space, some air that isn’t stale, that hasn’t been breathed by my family a thousand times already. (242)

This is Katie Carr, the doctor who, some 240 pages earlier, told her husband that she didn’t like living with him any more and wanted a divorce. Trouble is, the divorce didn’t take. Her obnoxious, angry, and sarcastic husband, David, first refused to acknowledge it, then underwent a miscellaneous spiritual conversion that drove him to make the lives of the downtrodden better, at the cost of making his family’s life chaotic and miserable. Finally, David’s fervour having receded, Katie rediscovers reading while settling back into a marriage that acts as perfect evidence for her despair at life. “Anyway, who lives a beautiful life that I know?”, she asks,

bq. It’s no longer possible, surely, for anyone who works for a living, or lives in a city, or shops in a supermarket, or watches TV, or reads a newspaper, or drives a car, or eats frozen pizzas. A nice life, possibly, with a huge slice of luck and a little spare cash. And maybe even a good life, if… Well, let’s not go into all that. But rich and beautiful lives seem to be a discontinued line. (241)

In between her first attempt to leave her husband, and the final page on which she gazes out into the emptiness of space, into which escapes her last flicker (for the book) of family feeling, Katie lives through a veritable maelstrom of family drama and social activism. Yet both she and her husband emerge from it as emotionally dead as they were before. It’s this deadness, apparently, that Katie and David try to compensate for. First they do it with anger, then with attempts to be “good” by taking in homeless children, bringing crazy patients home for dinner. Through it all, they wallow in the compulsory bucketloads of in-bad-faith middle-class guilt.

How to Be Good appears, at first, to really ask: “how can one live a ‘good’ life”, and to do it at the same time as lampooning middle-class, bleeding-heart leftism and charity. And although Hornby manages to extract some laughs, an enjoyable read, and some clever writing from David and Katie’s respectively willing and unwilling adventures in philanthropy, this is one of those books that struggles to know what it is about, what its point and message is. So, too, Katie and David fail to discover what it is that _they_ are or should be about: hence Katie’s eventual belief that beautiful lives are no longer even possible.

The problem, I’d venture to say, is that they chose the wrong path. The trick to a rich life is to be not good, but great; to do what is beautiful and what enriches oneself, instead of what helps others. Katie and David ultimately lack the imagination and the guts to find and do that which will enlarge them, and sink back into the drab life they began the book attempting to escape. And that is very ugly and depressing indeed. The lost will find no worthy solutions here to whatever malaise they feel.

They may, however, find some solace in Hornby’s very convincing depictions of everyday spiritual deadness and romantic unfulfilment. Several passages about Katie and David’s relationship breakdown reminded me very much of the dullness and the mounting resentment that beset my last relationship. In this area, Hornby has a stunning eye for detail and for the feeling of withered loves. While there’s little cheer to be had here, it’s in this observational element that _How to be Good_ becomes worth reading, a book with something to teach. It is a warning, perhaps, against letting our feelings and our loves die once, since they are not easily resurrected.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.