by Allyson Vaughan
Whenever I pick up a book by Nick Hornby it always feels like I’m settling in for an evening with a friend whose promised to tell me the most interesting story of my life, and for the time it always is. Hornby is often recognized for his earlier works, High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good, etc. All novels that made me laugh so hard I thought I’d ruptured my diaphragm. He’s also a successful screenwriter, penning the scripts for the Oscar nominated Brooklyn, Wild, An Education, and the film adaptations of his novels About a Boy, High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, and A Long Way Down. His career has been long and fruitful. And so when I discovered a copy of Hornby’s newest novel Funny Girl sitting on a Books-a-million shelf with a sale tag on it I carped that diem and bought it.
The book details Barbara Parker’s journey from reluctant beauty queen in Blackpool to budding comedic actress in 1960s London. Barbara burns to be just like her hero Lucille Ball, and watches I Love Lucy to study the technique and pacing of comedy. After winning Miss Blackpool Barbara can’t stand it any longer for fear that her role as Miss Blackpool will keep her there, she pushes aside her reservations of leaving her single father and packs off to London to hit it big. But what Barbara finds is that she’s judged by her shapely figure and stunning beauty all around. Even when a talent agent discovers her, he only wants to audition her for parts where she doesn’t speak. All she has to do to be famous, he says, is stand there. But Barbara’s tenacity and drive lands her an audition for a comedy show, and is finally taken seriously by the show’s writers when she bluntly tells them that their script is a piece of second day trash. Changing her name to Sophie Straw, Barbara takes on 1960s comedy television, but finds that fame comes with its own consequences.
Funny Girl, surprisingly, doesn’t contain many laugh out loud hysterics. There were a few places that made me laugh under my breath, but unlike many of Hornby’s novels this one didn’t make me convulse with laughter. I found myself disappointed that often times the writing didn’t live up to the plot. Barbara is described as a woman with a flaming passion for comedy that will not stop until she is taken seriously. And she doesn’t, but her wide-eyed wonderment at life in London and her self-consciousness undermine the gravity of the proposed characterization. At times, it even feels that Hornby is trying too hard to set her apart from other women of the 1960s. She’s tired of not being taken seriously because of her looks, rightly so, but it still remains all that the men in the novel ever see. Even when she’s stunning them with her talent, she’s never allowed to subvert their stares the way I wanted her to. Her character isn’t as powerful as she is set up to be to the point that secondary characters, like Tony and Bill who write the show, take over the story. Both Tony and Bill are gay men hiding their identities in a time when being gay was punishable by law. Only Bill is comfortable with his sexuality, while Tony marries a woman and finds himself content to live in the protective normalcy of married life.
I could’ve read an entire novel of Tony and Bill arguing about their writing process, in which a lot of the interesting dynamic between co-writers is revealed, but the rest of the story (Barbara’s story) seemed to fall away most of the time. The writing itself is not as strong as Hornby’s other writing. More often than not, little was left for the reader to discover because it was told to the reader. The story is appealing, revealing much about the frailty of fame and the change that marks time and taste in British TV. The writing is broken up with photographs of actual historic persons in the history of British television. And it was great to have the presence of Lucille Ball hovering throughout the novel. I Love Lucy being a personal favorite, and then to have Lucille Ball show up briefly as a character certainly added some appeal to the novel. But that almost felt like showy packaging put there to add importance where there was none. Hornby so often delivers big messages as subtext through real, dynamic characters. So one of the biggest let downs of the novel is that the main character revealed little and changed in a way that didn’t feel organic to who I was supposed to believe her to be.
Funny girl with all its faults is still an enjoyable read. Hornby is one of my favorite writers of contemporary fiction.Though this is not one of his strongest works in terms of craft I still read it from start to finish never feeling as if I was forcing myself through it. I’ve read novels where it felt like I had a nail gun pressed to my temple and some Bad Fiction Monster whispering, “Finish it and like it,” in my ear. This novel never gets that bad. It’s a piece of work from a notably fantastic writer that just doesn’t happen to be as strong as his other work. I’d recommend giving it a try to Hornby fans and those unfamiliar with his other writings. But if you haven’t read Hornby, perhaps it would be a better introduction to read High Fidelity or About a Boy first to get a taste of what Hornby’s fiction is usually like.
Lucy gives Ricky a lesson in English Pronunciation: