Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
Hornby novels for me are like pizza: when they’re good they’re great and when they’re not they’re still enjoyable and immensely readable. Luckily, in addition to being readable Funny Girl is really good. It starts off in 1960s, in the North West England town of Blackpool, where our heroine, Barbara, wins a beauty contest. She doesn’t remain crowned for long, however, as her life ambitions are rather much higher, and she relocates to London where she pursues a career in television. Barbara looks like a blond pin-up goddess, but what she really wants to do is make people laugh and be Britain’s answer to her hero, Lucille Ball. With talent and luck on her side, she changes her name to Sophie and lands the lead role in a domestic sitcom, which she comes to dominate so completely that the show adopts the name Barbara (and Jim). Needless to say, the sitcom is a huge hit. Even though Barbara/Sophie is set up to be the heroine of the book, it devotes almost as much attention to the team behind the show, particularly the writing duo of Bill and Tony, and the different ways they deal with the success of their sitcom and their own sexuality (the novel takes place before the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK). How long can Barbara (and Jim) stay on top, before the inevitable decline sets in?
Hornby has a real knack for observing human nature with clever, hilarious passages like:
Tony and Bill used to be two different shades of chalk. Now Tony was turning into a variety of cheese. It wasn’t a strong cheese, admittedly – he was probably closer in flavour to a cheese spread than to a seeping blue French thing riddled with maggots.
I did think that some of the extended dialogue scenes went on for a bit too long, but overall the writing is as sharp and funny as in Hornby’s best books. Even though I loved About a Boy and Juliet, Naked, I thought that both novels ran out of steam somewhat before the end, so I was pleased to find out that the ending for Funny Girl (set in the modern day) was wonderfully handled and satisfyingly bittersweet.
My edition of the book also had neat real-life photographs from the period scattered throughout – the funniest one was probably of the United Kingdom coming first in 1960s Eurovison (how the mighty have fallen indeed). They were a nice touch – I could never understand why illustrations or any kind of images are always relegated to the children’s books ghetto.
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
I haven’t seen the film with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton which was based on this novel, but I think it still created some preconceived notions in my head about what the story would be like, just because of its casting. Instead, the book turned out to be something quite different – in a good way.
The story is set in 1920s in Hong Kong and centres on Kitty Fane, a young and naive woman who is caught in an affair with another man by her husband Walter, a bactereologist. Devastated by his wife’s infidelity, he takes up a post in a remote China district to fight an outbreak of cholera, with Kitty more or less forced to go along to what could well be her death.
Kitty and Walter are spectacularly unsuited for each other. He adores her to bits, but he’s a stern, shy, proud, painfully self-conscious man without a shred of lightness or charm to him. She only married him out of desperation, in order to beat her younger sister to the altar and avoid the disapproval of her mother. What I was expecting at that point was for the story go the way where, trapped together in peril, Walter would learn to forgive Kitty and she would learn to love her husband. But then the novel had different ideas and while the outcome may not be as romantic, it felt more honest and had lots of things to say about human capacity for change and growth. There’s also a scene near the end which was almost painful to read, it was such a raw reminder that no matter how far you might come as a person, something can still come along and knock you off your feet and send you tumbling right back.
Despite her bad choices and initial shallowness, Kitty is a sympathetic character throughout – you get an understanding that her foolishness is largely the result of her mother’s ambitions and the skewed, cossetted world she grew up in. Likewise, Walter is not portrayed simply as a wronged, saintly husband: though he’s got many admirable qualities it’s clear that his passion for Kitty has a dark side which turns him cold and unforgiving.
I’d definitely want to read more of Maugham after this and Of Human Bondage (which was just as emotional and had the same effect of making me go, oh shit no don’t do that no, in certain scenes).