How to Be Goodby Nick Hornby, Jenny Sterlin (Narrated by)
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How to Be Good is a story for our times—a humorous but uncompromising look at what it takes, in this day and age, to have the courage of our convictions. In his third novel, Nick Hornby, whom The New Yorker named "the maestro of the male confessional," has reinvented himself as Katie—the consummate liberal, urban mom—a doctor from North London whose world is being turned on its ear by the outrageous spiritual transformation of her husband, David.
How to Be Good has the ironic, funny, startlingly accurate take on our modern selves and our modern world that has become Hornby's turf as a chronicler of our popular culture—but this time he tackles it all with more richness and depth, and carries his readers beyond the comic confines of the novel to a bigger truth about themselves. It's a story about how to wreck your marriage, how to help the homeless, how not to raise your kids, how to find religion . . . and how to be good.
A darkly funny and thought-provoking ride."—USA Today
"A bitingly clever novel of ideas...[a] profound, worrying, hilarious, sophisticated, compulsive novel."—The Sunday Times (UK)
"Daringly different."—New York Daily News
"How to be good? How to be bloody marvelous more like."—The Mail on Sunday(UK)
"Breezily hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time."—New York Magazine
"Seriousness spiked with humor...a page-turner."—The Washington Times
"A thorny parable...very funny and shrewd."—Salon.com
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I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him anymore. David isn't even in the car park with me. He's at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly's class teacher. The other bit just sort of...slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn't want to be married to him anymore, I really didn't think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular self-assessment will now have to be revised, clearly. I can describe myself as the kind of person who doesn't forget names, for example, because I have remembered names thousands of times and forgotten them only once or twice. But for the majority of people, marriage-ending conversations happen only once, if at all. If you choose to conduct yours on a mobile phone, in a Leeds car park, then you cannot really claim that it is unrepresentative, in the same way that Lee Harvey Oswald couldn't really claim that shooting presidents wasn't like him at all. Sometimes we have to be judged by our one-offs.
Later, in the hotel room, when I can't sleep -- and that is some sort of consolation, because even though I have turned into the woman who ends marriages in a car park, at least I have the decency to toss and turn afterward -- I retrace the conversation in my head, in as much detail as I can manage, trying to work out how we'd got from there (Molly's dental appointment) to here (imminent divorce) in three minutes. Ten, anyway. Which turns into an endless, three-in-the-morning brood about how we'd got from there (meeting at a college dance in 1976) to here (imminent divorce) in twenty-four years.
To tell you the truth, the second part of this self-reflection only takes so long because twenty-four years is a long time, and there are loads of bits that come unbidden into your head, little narrative details, that don't really have much to do with the story. If my thoughts about our marriage had been turned into a film, the critics would say that it was all padding, no plot, and that it could be summarized thus: two people meet, fall in love, have kids, start arguing, get fat and grumpy (him) and bored, desperate and grumpy (her), and split up. I wouldn't argue with the synopsis. We're nothing special.
The phone-call, though...I keep missing the link, the point where it turned from a relatively harmonious and genuinely banal chat about minor domestic arrangements into this cataclysmic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it moment. I can remember the beginning of it, almost word for word:
Him: "Hello. How's it going?"
Me: "Yeah, fine. Kids all right?"
Him: "Yeah. Molly's here watching TV, Tom's round at Jamie's."
Me: "I just phoned to say that you've got to write a note for Molly to take in to school tomorrow. About the dentist's."
See? See? It can't be done, you'd think, not from here. But you'd be wrong, because we did it. I'm almost sure that the first leap was made here, at this point; the way I remember it now, there was a pause, an ominous silence, at the other end of the line. And then I said something like, "What?", and he said, "Nothing." And I said "What?" again and he said "Nothing" again, except he clearly wasn't baffled or amused by my question, just tetchy, which means, does it not, that you have to plow on. So I plowed on.
"No. What you said."
"What did I say?"
"About just phoning to remind me about Molly's note."
"What's wrong with that?"
"It'd be nice if you just phoned for some other reason. You know, to say hello. To see how your husband and children are."
"What, 'Oh David'?"
"That was the first thing I asked. 'How are the kids?' "
"Yeah. OK. 'How are the kids?' Not, you know, 'How are you?' "
You don't get conversations like this when things are going well. It is not difficult to imagine that in other, better relationships, a phone call that began in this way would not and could not lead to talk of divorce. In better relationships you could sail right through the dentist part and move on to other topics -- your day's work, or plans for the evening, or even, in a spectacularly functional marriage, something that has taken place in the world outside your home, a coughing fit on the Today Programme, say -- just as ordinary, just as forgettable, but topics that form the substance and perhaps even the sustenance of an ordinary, forgettable, loving relationship. David and I, however...this is not our situation, not anymore. Phone calls like ours only happen when you've spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play. In fact, when I was lying awake in the hotel room trying to piece it all together, I was even struck by how clever we had been to invent our code: it takes years of miserable ingenuity to get to this place.
"Do you care how I am?"
"To be honest, David, I don't need to ask how you are. I can hear how you are. Healthy enough to look after two children while simultaneously sniping at me. And very, very aggrieved, for reasons that remain obscure to me at this point. Although I'm sure you'll enlighten me."
"What makes you think I'm aggrieved?"
"Ha! You're the definition of aggrieved. Permanently."
"David, you make your living from being aggrieved."
This is true, partly. David's only steady income derives from a newspaper column he contributes to our local paper. The column is illustrated by a photograph of him snarling at the camera, and is subtitled "The Angriest Man in Holloway." The last one I could bear to read was a diatribe against old people who traveled on buses: Why did they never have their money ready? Why wouldn't they use the seats set aside for them at the front of the bus? Why did they insist on standing up ten minutes before their stop, thus obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion? You get the picture, anyway.
"In case you hadn't noticed, possibly because you never bother to fucking read me -- "
"Watching TV in the other room. Fuck fuck fuck. Shit."
"Possibly because you never bother to fucking read me, my column is ironic."
I laughed ironically.
"Well, please excuse the inhabitants of 32 Webster Road if the irony is lost on us. We wake up with the angriest man in Holloway every day of our lives."
"What's the point of all this?"
Maybe in the film of our marriage, written by a scriptwriter on the lookout for brief and elegant ways of turning dull, superficial arguments into something more meaningful, this would have been the moment: you know, "That's a good question...Where are we going?...What are we doing?...Something something something...It's over." OK, it needs a little work, but it would do the trick. As David and I are not Tom and Nicole, however, we are blind to these neat little metaphorical moments.
"I don't know what the point of all this is. You got cross about me not asking how you were."
"How are you?"
I sighed, right into the mouthpiece of the phone, so that he could hear what I was doing; I had to move the mobile away from my ear and toward my mouth, which robbed the moment of its spontaneity, but I know through experience that my mobile isn't good on nonverbal nuance.
"Jesus Christ! What was that?"
"It was a sigh."
"Sounds like you're on top of a mountain."
We said nothing for a while. He was in a North London kitchen saying nothing, and I was in a car park in Leeds saying nothing, and I was suddenly and sickeningly struck by how well I knew this silence, the shape and the feel of it, all of its spiky little corners. (And of course it's not really silence at all. You can hear the expletive-ridden chatter of your own anger, the blood that pounds in your ears, and on this occasion, the sound of a Fiat Uno reversing into a parking space next to yours.) The truth is, there was no link between domestic inquiry and the decision to divorce. That's why I can't find it. I think what happened was, I just launched in.
"I'm so tired of this, David."
"This. Rowing all the time. The silences. The bad atmosphere. All this...poison."
"Oh. That." Delivered as if the venom had somehow dripped into our marriage through a leaking roof, and he'd been meaning to fix it. "Yeah, well. Too late now."
I took a deep breath, for my benefit rather than his, so the phone stayed on my ear this time. "Maybe not."
"What does that mean?"
"Do you really want to live the rest of your life like this?"
"No, of course not. Are you suggesting an alternative?"
"Yes, I suppose I am."
"Would you care to tell me what it is?"
"You know what it is."
"Of course I do. But I want you to be the first one to mention it."
And by this stage I really didn't care.
"Do you want a divorce?"
"I want it on record that it wasn't me who said it."
"You not me."
"Me not you. Come on, David. I'm trying to talk about a sad, grown-up thing, and you still want to score points."
"So I can tell everyone you asked for a divorce. Out of the blue."
"Oh, it's completely out of the blue, isn't it? I mean, there's been no sign of this, has there, because we've been so blissfully happy. And is that what you're interested in doing? Telling everyone? Is that the point of it, for you?"
"I'm getting straight on the phone as soon as we've finished. I want to spin my version before you can spin your version."
"OK, well -- I'll just stay on the phone, then."
And then, sick of myself and him and everything else that went with either of us, I did the opposite, and hung up. Which is how come I have ended up tossing and turning in a Leeds hotel room trying to retrace my conversational steps, occasionally swearing with the frustration of not being able to sleep, turning the light and the TV on and off, and generally making my lover's life a misery. Oh, I suppose he should go into the film synopsis somewhere. They got married, he got fat and grumpy, she got desperate and grumpy, she took a lover.
Listen: I'm not a bad person. I'm a doctor. One of the reasons I wanted to become a doctor was that I thought it would be a good -- as in Good, rather than exciting or well-paid or glamorous -- thing to do. I liked how it sounded: "I want to be a doctor," "I'm training to be a doctor," "I'm a GP in a small North London practice." I thought it made me seem just right -- professional, kind of brainy, not too flashy, respectable, mature, caring. You think doctors don't care about how things look, because they're doctors? Of course we do. Anyway. I'm a good person, a doctor, and I'm lying in a hotel bed with a man I don't really know very well called Stephen, and I've just asked my husband for a divorce.
Stephen, not surprisingly, is awake.
"You all right?" he asks me.
I can't look at him. A couple of hours ago his hands were all over me, and I wanted them there, too, but now I don't want him in the bed, in the room, in Leeds.
"Bit restless." I get out of bed and start to get dressed. "I'm going out for a walk."
It's my hotel room, so I take the keycard with me, but even as I'm putting it in my bag I realize I'm not coming back. I want to be at home, rowing and crying and feeling guilty about the mess we're about to make of our children's lives. The Health Authority is paying for the room. Stephen will have to take care of the minibar, though.
I drive for a couple of hours and then stop at a service station for a cup of tea and a doughnut. If this was a film, something would happen on the drive home, something that illustrated and illuminated the significance of the journey. I'd meet someone, or decide to become a different person, or get involved in a crime and maybe be abducted by the criminal, a nineteen-year-old with a drug habit and limited education who turns out to be both more intelligent and, indeed, more caring than me -- ironically, seeing as I'm a doctor and he's an armed robber. And he'd learn something, although God knows what, from me and I'd learn something from him and then we'd continue alone on our journeys through life, subtly but profoundly modified by our brief time together. But this isn't a film, as I've said before, so I eat my doughnut, drink my tea, and get back in the car. (Why do I keep going on about films? I've only been to the cinema twice in the last couple of years, and both of the films I saw starred animated insects. For all I know, most adult films currently on general release are about women who drive uneventfully from Leeds to North London, stopping for tea and doughnuts on the M1.) The journey only takes me three hours, including doughnuts. I'm home by six, home to a sleeping house which, I now notice, is beginning to give off a sour smell of defeat.
No one wakes up until quarter to eight, so I doze on the sofa. I'm happy to be back in the house, despite mobile phone calls and lovers; I'm happy to feel the warmth of my oblivious children seeping down through the creaking floorboards. I don't want to go to the marital bed, not tonight, or this morning, or whatever it is now -- not because of Stephen, but because I have not yet decided whether I'll ever sleep with David again. What would be the point? But then, what is the point anyway, divorce or no divorce? It's so strange, all that -- I've had countless conversations with or about people who are "sleeping in separate bedrooms," as if sleeping in the same bed is all there is to staying married, but however bad things get, sharing a bed has never been problematic; it's the rest of life that horrifies. There have been times recently, since the beginning of our troubles, when the sight of David awake, active, conscious, walking and talking has made me want to retch, so acute is my loathing of him; at night, though, it's a different story. We still make love, in a halfhearted, functional way, but it's not the sex: it's more that -- we've worked out sleeping in the last twenty-odd years, and how to do it together. I've developed contours for his elbows and knees and bum, and nobody else quite fits into me in quite the same way, especially not Stephen, who despite being leaner and taller and all sorts of things that you think might recommend him to a woman looking for a bed partner, seems to have all sorts of body parts in all the wrong places; there were times last night when I began to wonder gloomily whether David is the only person in the world with whom I will ever be comfortable, whether the reason our marriage and maybe countless marriages have survived thus far is that there is some perfect weight/height differential that noone has ever researched properly, and if one or other partner is a fraction of a millimeter wrong either way then the relationship will never take. And it's not just that, either. When David's asleep, I can turn him back into the person I still love: I can impose my idea of what David should be, used to be, onto his sleeping form, and the seven hours I spend with that David just about gets me through the next day with the other David.
Reprinted from How to be Good by Nick Hornby by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Nick Hornby. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
What People are Saying About This
"A darkly funny and thought-provoking ride."USA Today
"A bitingly clever novel of ideas...[a] profound, worrying, hilarious, sophisticated, compulsive novel."The Sunday Times (UK)
"Daringly different."New York Daily News
"How to be good? How to be bloody marvelous more like."The Mail on Sunday (UK)
"Breezily hilarious and thought-provoking at the same time."New York magazine
"Seriousness spiked with humor...a page-turner."The Washington Times
"A thorny parable...very funny and shrewd."Salon.com
Meet the Author
Nick Hornby is the author of the bestselling novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, as well as the memoir Fever Pitch. He is also the editor of the short-story collection Speaking with the Angel. In 1999 he was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters': E. M. Forster Award.
- Date of Birth:
- April 17, 1957
- Place of Birth:
- Redhill, Surrey, England
- Jesus College, Cambridge University
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Though many may chastise How To Be Good for its lack of humor and heavy serious tone compared with Hornby's other Novels, it is a masterpiece. It is refreshing to hear Hornby's witty and biting remarks coming from a character who is not an immature male struggling to find meaning in his life. The characterization is of course absolutely top notch, everyone seeming real and authentically pathetic and worried about their morality. Katie's internal conflicts are both reasonable and difficult to resolve. Her irritation with David both understandable and condemnable. This is a novel that makes you think and really question morality. It is in some ways a criticism of the empty liberalism that so many of us hide behind, and in other ways a critique on charity. Hornby does an excellent job writing from a woman's point of view, making the reader completely forget the authors real gender. This novel again differs from previous novels in that the narrator is a much more sympathetic character, one can feel themselves getting annoyed at David (her husband) as they read. The novel is of course filled with his trademark pop culture references, though they are less frequent and their use seems more pertinent. Overall this is a wonderful read for anybody who is a fan of Nick Hornby's accessible and witty style, a style that is only made more enjoyable with How to be Good's serious and difficult moral quandaries.
I've read and re-read this book and I laugh every time like it's the first time.
Nick makes a bold move writing from the viewpoint of a woman. As far as I can tell he gives a pretty accurate portrail (but I'm also a man, so what do I know). Futhermore, he takes on divorce, and actually manages to throw in a few chuckles. However, the title posses a question, leading you believe he would answer it in the novel...HE DOES NOT! After 300 odd pages, the characters are pretty much left where they started. I won't give away the ending, but there is no grand denouement.
Modern life is a juggling act, so how do you keep all of the balls in the air? In 'How To Be Good' Nick Hornby examines what happens when irrascible journalist David,who writes a vituperative column, meets a guru and decides to become truly good. He decides to stop juggling conflicting interests and adopts a naive form of goodness that prompts him to share his family's home and wealth with the needy. Katie, his wife, represents the more ordinary and complex goodness most of us recognise from our own lives. If David is unbelievably naive Katie is believably exhausted and flat. In the end I was left feeling that Hornby had successfully identified what constitutes virtue in the modern world but dropped a narative ball or two by leaving Katie so bleak at the end of the novel.
As a Hornby fan, I was very disappointed in this book. His characterisations are unconvincing. I didn't even gel with the husband, never mind the Dr wife. Result, I didn't really care what happened to them. An ultra slow start - I doubt whether new Hornby readers will get beyond page 80. Nick, stick to writing about things you believe you understand.
Possible not the best choice for my first Nick Hornby read. I found it more depressing and unfortunate than humorous (as the reviews suggested). Don¿t get me wrong, I did find myself smirking a few times but, not as much as I would have liked.
I loved this book! Kate and her family go through something which I highly doubt many families do go through. I loved how the characters grow on me. It's amazing and a must have!
Fans of Nick Hornby may well be disappointed by 'How to be Good.' Dissappoinment comes if you are expecting his usual bag of laugh out loud moments. This book is deeper. One everyone can relate to. Married. Single. It's the basic humainty that Hornby draws from. Hornby proves he can write just as well from a woman's prospective, as the male psyche. Everyone can identify with the need to justify your existence. In typical Hornby fashion, the last chapter throws you.
I hate to say it because I love Nick Hornby and had been anxiously awaiting his new book, but I was very disappointed. Hornby's characters are usually so well drawn and get into such humourous situations that I have to laugh out loud. The characters in 'How To Be Good' are all miserable people with no sense of humor at all. The wit and sparkle of Hornby's other novels is entirely missing. Do yourself a favor and read (or re-read) 'High Fidelity' or 'About A Boy'.
I enjoyed the premise of this novel very much. The narrator desperately wants to think of herself as "good," and when her grumpy, mean, negative husband suddenly decides to become "a good person" her world is turned upside down. She, hilariously, becomes defensive of her standing as "the good one" while her husband takes in homeless people, etc. There were some good ideas here for plot lines that should have thickened and found interesting resolutions, but none of them went ANYWHERE! Hornby just started with some funny ideas, played them out, and moved on to the next funny idea. I would say its entertaining and worth reading but definitely not highly recommended.
If you are member of a family and capable of laughing at your own foibles, you cannot help but enjoy this book. My entire extended family read HOW TO BE GOOD and are convinced that Hornby has our houses bugged. As with most of his books, Hornby is an observer of his characters’ lives. The story is secondary to the thoughts/convolutions of his characters. It is a bit dark, but hilarious!!! Face it, it is complicated trying to be good...might as well laugh at our failed attempts and keep trying.
A more frustrating story than the usual Nick Hornby approach, this book is still a story worth reading because of its aggravating realism.