Holiday Reading – Funny Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Nick Hornby’s books from the well known Fever Pitch and High Fidelity to the slightly dark A Long Way Down.  So, when his new book Funny Girl was released not long before Christmas it was on my list of books I was requesting from anyone who asked.

I’d seen Hornby interviewed on TV before and knew a little bit about him including his Arsenal obsession but I felt I knew him even better when he was on one of the panels at the recent Mumsnet Blogfest.  He didn’t disappoint and joined in the conversation in a way which was exactly how I’d imagined him – a bit bashful, clearly the most successful person on the panel, a regular bloke who realises how lucky he is to write for a living but still not embarrassed to admit he can be a procrastinator and that writing definitely feels like a job which requires lots of effort and willpower.

Father Christmas came up with the goods anyway and Funny Girl was one of the many books I got for Christmas.  A hardback too.  I love hardback books.  They are completely impractical for taking anywhere with you but they feel more special than a paperback.  A bit like I love this author enough to read their book before it goes into the cheaper, paperback version.

It's in hardback - Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

It’s in hardback – Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

Anyway, back to Funny Girl.  It opens in 1960’s Blackpool with Barbara who lives with her dad and dreams of being the next Lucille Ball.  Unfortunately there isn’t much call for a Lucille Ball wannabe in Blackpool and Barbara romanticises about a life in London and stardom.  Even when she wins the Miss Blackpool beauty contest and is set to become a real local celebrity she turns down the honour, the thought of her beauty queen duties tying her to the town for a further year terrifying her, and she hot foots it to London to follow her dream.

Like any Dick Whittington type escape to London she finds the streets aren’t paved with gold or even a sniff of stardom and she ends up taking work in a department store and changing her name to Sophie Straw.  She rooms with a gloomy colleague who dispenses advice on how to escape the counters by getting into the perfume department and luring a married man.  Sophie is horrified but realises there is some truth to this and ends up going on a date with a clearly married man.  The date leads to a chance meeting with a talent scout and his wife and before she knows it she is off to auditions despite the talent scout scoffing at her ideas of being a comedy actress.

She auditions for a BBC comedy pilot and impresses the two writers, Tony and Bill, as well as the likeable but much put upon director Dennis.  Only Clive, who will be her co-star, has his doubts and that is more to do with him worrying she’s more talented than him.  The audition scene was a bit implausible to me, how she suddenly impresses with her comic timing etc.  Apart from her love of I Love Lucy there is no real reason to believe she is some brilliant comic, none of the dialogue before the audition particularly makes her stand out as funny.  But that aside she gets the part and the pilot is made and you’ll have to read the book to find out what else happens next in terms of storyline.

As with all of Hornby’s books he is brilliant at exposing all the flaws in his characters, as well as their good points.  There isn’t really one character who stands out as being completely likeable.  Sophie is self-centred and fickle, by the end of the book I didn’t particularly like her very much although having worked in TV for a little bit of my career I could definitely compare her to some people I’ve encountered.

Tony and Bill are an interesting pairing, both with very different lives.  One in a marriage which is full of love but not much sex, the other a gay man who always feels like he’s being pulled in another direction and writing a mainstream TV series makes him feel a little like a sell out.  Being set in the 60’s it was fascinating to read about the social situation in Britain then.  The 60’s weren’t that long ago but being gay was still illegal until 1967 and women were seen as the homemaker or the sex siren.  Also TV was going through a change with shows like Til Death Us Do Part.  There was also a lot of talk about the dumbing down of the BBC.  One of the characters in the book, a critic, argues that shows like the one Sophie is in are too mainstream and the start of a decline in standards.  Although as a reader you are not meant to sympathise too much with him when you start to think about some of the shows we have on TV now you realise that he may have had a point.

Hornby writes not just from Sophie’s perspective but from all the characters so you definitely feel like you know them all inside out and even those that aren’t that favourable like the egocentric Clive are revealed to have their softer side and reasons for being how they are.

It’s a good book, I liked how we saw the characters through to the present day and you definitely ended up caring about what happened to them.  It would be a great holiday read (in paperback if you don’t have much room in your case) with a cracking story and a bit of social history in there too.


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