Funny Girl: The New Nick Hornby Novel
Nick Hornby has written some of the best portraits ever of obsessive fandom in Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, but I haven’t read many of his newer works. When I heard that his most recent novel, Funny Girl, was about a beautiful young woman who wanted to make people laugh in 1960s Britain, I thought that sounded like a great book for me to try. I love pop culture, pop history, and women struggling to break through artificial entertainment barriers.
As expected, I loved the setting. I only got about half the references, but that still may be more than many US readers. However, I was left wanting to know more about Sophie, the main character. Hornby frequently lets us know how attractive she is — she was a local beauty queen for about 10 minutes in the inciting incident that starts off the book — but it’s a lot more difficult to get a handle on what she’s thinking or feeling. She’s treated as more of an element to write scenes around than a fully fleshed character.
Sophie is blonde and built. She idolizes Lucille Ball and leaves home for London to try and make something out of life. She lucks into a lead on a sitcom, and the bulk of the book follows the rise and fall of the show through its four seasons. As the series progresses, the changes in the situations and characters, both on-screen and off-, are meant to reflect the changes in British culture at the time, but American readers may have trouble picking up on the nuances.
The other major characters include Clive, her shallow co-star who thinks he should be a leading man but doesn’t have that much talent or self-awareness; Dennis, the director distinguished most by his long-running silent crush on Sophie; and Tony and Bill, co-writers with their own struggles. There’s lots of potential, but the end result is a tad frustrating. Not enough, for example, is done with Bill’s challenges as a gay man during a time those were literally illegal to act upon.
Tony, meanwhile, works though balancing the need to make money (for a young wife and new child) with struggling to make art and “statements”. It’s a potent question, particularly during the turbulent times and changing culture from 1964 on, but as with the rest of the book, it’s also handled superficially. Hornby does seem much more comfortable in the later chapters when the focus swings more to the writer supporting a family than the young woman coping with the question of becoming the last hot thing. (Write what you know, I guess.) Most of the story is told through conversation, and at times, it was easy to confuse Dennis, Tony, and Bill, since unless they’re referring to their particular plot hook, their voices sound a lot alike.
It’s a very breezy read, lengthy but quick to get through, and I did enjoy spending time with the cast and thinking back to that period of history. My reaction is most like Hitchcock’s “refrigerator moment” — I enjoyed the book, but after I put it down, I kept thinking “wait a minute…” and finding new ways the work could have been improved. It would have stayed with me more if the themes had been handled more substantially, and if the storytelling wasn’t so scattershot. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)