How to be Good, by Nick Hornby

Katie Carr is a GP who thinks she's not doing so badly, morally speaking: she has a job in which she can do good, and she tries to do the right thing, even when it's not the easiest option. Then her husband appears to undergo some kind of spiritual conversion which results in him wanting to live an altogether more virtuous life, and Katie's moral framework is thrown rather into confusion.

It must be more than five years since I first read this, and I remember really enjoying it; I'd made a note then to read it again, and the excuse was provided by reading May Contain Nuts, which strongly reminded me of this book - both are written in the first person, by a male author who assumes the identity of a contemporary woman facing awkward moral choices, and both are humourous and sad as well.

But this book is, I think, in a different league from May Contain Nuts - the writing is a lot better (it's just so pleasant to read, and such a disappointment when it ends), and the message is not nearly so unsubtle. Whereas in that book you were left in no doubt as to what you were meant to conclude (private education - bad), this one is a bit more ambiguous, and capable of challenging your own assumptions and prejudices, rather than simply confirming them.

This is sort of a thought-experiment of what would happen if we took Peter Singer's views seriously, and determined to do something about the problems of the world, rather than make excuses about why we make only token gestures. As such, some of the mechanics that get the thing going are perhaps a bit implausible (the miraculous healing touch of DJ GoodNews), but that's not really important, because what feels so true is how everyone (especially Katie) responds to the challenge.

I think Hornby was criticised by some for this novel, partly because Katie wasn't felt to be a realistic portrayal of a woman. But I found Katie to be a very believable character: I lost count of the number of her thoughts which I felt like marking to say "yes, that's just how I feel", and seems (to me, anyway) a pretty convincing female character.

Good ending too.

I didn't really enjoy A Long Way Down, and haven't got round to reading Slam yet but I'm now pretty tempted to get stuck into it (or re-read some earlier Hornby) because it's just such a treat.

A small thing which links this book with MCN, which I read just before it, is a reflection that the main character has (I'll have to paraphrase because I don't have the exact quotes, so I'm not doing either author justice, but both observations stuck in my mind): in MCN, Alice thinks that while she now wishes she were younger, there was a time when she wished she were older. So presumably there was some time in her life when she was exactly the age she wanted to be. And in HTBG, Katie remembers that there was a time when she was the most important thing in someone else's life, but that that's no longer true, and she wonders when it stopped being true.

Completed : 23-Nov-2008

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