Nick Hornby is a mensch among writers. He writes warm, big-hearted novels and deliberately nonsnarky music and literary criticism. He publishes books to raise money for charity. Even his biggest flaw as a writer is menschy: he won’t let his characters come to any serious harm, even though they’re imaginary, and even if a little pain would do them good.
When the stakes are lower—like the breakup in High Fidelity—this is forgivable. But when Hornby writes about heavier things, like divorce and suicide, or attempts to cover an entire life, as in his latest novel, Funny Girl, his kindness begins to grate. It’s OK, you want to tell him. Even though you are the Author and all-powerful, you don’t have to provide tidy solutions to everybody’s problems. God doesn’t, so why should you?
Funny Girl is an affectionate tribute to the sitcoms of Hornby’s 1960s British childhood. It concerns the rise and fall of Barbara (and Jim), a BBC comedy about a mismatched young married couple, and its lovable cast and crew: Bill and Tony, the two sardonic writers; Dennis, the good-natured and diplomatic producer; Clive, the vain leading man; and, most of all, Sophie Straw (nee Barbara Parker), a blond bombshell from Blackpool who also happens to be a dizzily brilliant comedian.
Hornby obviously adores these people. He devotes pages and pages to their delightful banter. He’s a master of dialogue. He can encapsulate an entire unhappy marriage in a single two-page conversation, punctuated with one sharp observation: “How on earth could she love him? But she didn’t.”
But this sharpness does not extend to the two most important pieces of the novel: Sophie and Barbara (and Jim) itself. Hornby tells us over and over how disruptively brilliant they are, but rarely shows it.
In what we’re told is one of the show’s groundbreaking episodes, for instance, Jim’s snooty bluestocking colleague comes to dinner and attempts to condescend to working-class Barbara. “Over the course of thirty minutes, Barbara runs rings around Edwina—to Jim’s initial discomfort and, later, great delight.” But what does she say? How does she say it? Knowing Sophie isn’t very helpful because, as written, she’s not all that funny.
Oh, she can match wits with the boys, and in a few early scenes, she tries to enliven difficult situations with bits of impromptu screwball comedy, but as soon as she has Tony and Bill to write lines for her, that character trait disappears. Hornby loves her so much he won’t let her suffer or struggle: her first-ever audition leads to Dennis, Tony, and Bill retooling Barbara (and Jim) just for her. It’s a lost opportunity because, as Hornby made clear in his first book, Fever Pitch (an ode to Arsenal Football Club, the Cubs of British soccer), failure can be much funnier than easy success.
But even so, there are enough good things about Funny Girl that reading it is like binge watching an old sitcom from your own childhood. It’s warm and pleasant and impossible to hate, but you won’t be dying to tell anybody about it afterward.