I’ve really enjoyed other books by Nick Hornby, and a patron recommended Funny Girl when he was returning it last week so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s set mainly in the 1960’s, although the end is in present times. It’s about a young woman, Barbara Parker, from Blackpool, who wants to be the next Lucille Ball. Barbara wants this so badly she is willing to leave her dad and her auntie Marie in Blackpool and go to London where she knows no one.
Hornby is respectful of Barbara’s ambition — in fact, one thing I really like about his books is that Hornby is respectful of all of his characters. Even the nakedly ambitious or the slightly mean-spirited or the completely irritating ones. He has a a generosity of spirit towards all of them that is really endearing.
Back to Barbara, or Sophie as she is known in London. She is smart and funny and unvarnished and when she auditions for a comedy show on the BBC the writers, Tony and Bill, and the producer, Dennis, realize she’s brilliant and hatch plans for a series. But Funny Girl isn’t just about a happy young successful team and their smash hit show. Tony and Bill are gay, although Tony’s not sure if he is also attracted to women, especially after he marries one and is happy. Hornby writes about how dangerous it is to be gay in London in the 1960’s. And how society is changing swiftly but there are still people who use the word “courting” and are openly prejudiced. And how in the tumult of these changes, people mostly want what they always have.
In other words, in the framework of this funny novel about the birth of a modern sitcom in 1960’s London, Hornby talks about the ever changing, ever the same human condition. We struggle with our ambitions and hopes, and struggle to reconcile them with the ambitions and hopes of our family and friends. We hurt each other inadvertently or purposefully, we apologize and make amends or lurch off to do it again. We try to learn and be better people and be worthy of those who love us.
Hornby also notices that people have always thought the young were careless or unserious. In one scene Tony is trying to write a new show with Sophie’s friend Diane about a young woman making her way in London, and he asks ” What’s her problem?” Diane doesn’t understand his point, and he goes on to patiently explain that’s how scripts work — the characters have a problem that they work out. Diane, who is herself a young woman making her way in London, says “Yeah, but they’re all so depressing, those programs . . . . None of my friends want to watch them.” They go back and forth a bit and she tells him that only her parents and grandparents watch that kind of thing, and Tony’s appalled. It reminded me of modern conversations about which generations prefer which social media or online content.
Look for Funny Girl if you’d like a historical novel of manners full of astute observations of human nature that has as much to say about our own world as the one it’s set in.