How to Be Good
It could have been an awkward stunt--a famed chronicler of male angst attempting for the first time to build a novel around a female protagonist. But British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) pulls it off smashingly in How to Be Good. He accomplishes this feat in two ways: He purges his work of modern-gal-fiction clichés while at the same time driving his plot through clever exploitation of a fantasy not exclusive to women but certainly common to us--the wish to change an imperfect partner.
When we meet Dr. Katie Carr, a long-married mother of two, she has just told her husband, David, that she wants a divorce. While Katie's work at a local clinic supports the family, David's days have dwindled to tending the kids, pecking away at a tiresomely crabby novel about Blair-era Britain, and penning a newspaper column aptly titled "The Angriest Man in Holloway." His wit long ago soured into surliness, and Katie has drifted into an affair less from a hunger for passion than from a simple desire for a kind word. She wishes David would just like her again. And one day, miraculously, he does. He not only likes her, he loves her. In fact, he loves everybody, in a maddeningly beatific, Hare Krishna-at-the-airport kind of way.
David has fallen under the spell of a self-styled New Age healer named DJ GoodNews, who soon moves in with the embattled couple and their baffled children, Tom and Molly. (Some of the book's funniest bits involve the way the kids' natural rivalry leads them to play out their parents' conflict in miniature--Molly becomes her father's virtuous ally, while Tom fumes alongside his fed-up mother.) St. David begins giving away Sunday dinners and his children's toys to the less fortunate. He pleads with his middle-class neighbors to take in homeless youths. He loses all interest in the books and CDs he once devoured, now considering them frivolous extravagances when So Many People Are Suffering, and sloughs off cynicism and catty judgments. ("But . . . that's the basis for all conversation!" an old friend sputters in protest.) Meanwhile, Katie, who feels that her work as a physician and her general liberal philosophy should exempt her from such gonzo altruism, struggles with just exactly why David's conversion unsettles her and whether she can stand to live with him now that he's discovered how to be good.
What's really good about How to Be Good is the character at its center. Despite Hornby's steady reliance on interior monologues, he never forces Katie to share the usual girly blather that permeates too much female-centered pop fiction. (What a relief, for example, to read a novel about a modern woman who doesn't spend a single sentence fussing about her weight or wardrobe. We have no idea what Katie looks like, and that's a compliment.) The novelist makes his protagonist sound like a bright, funny, credible, and specific grown woman, not an adolescent, neurotic distillation of magazine service pieces. Most refreshingly, Hornby avoids easy answers or resolutions to the book's central conflict and lets his lead character be her imperfect self. His heroine is essentially an adulterer who champions selfishness; his accomplishment is that she's the reader's heroine too.