Good Living

Novelist Nick Hornby, the voice of the modern dysfunctional male, switches genders in his new work How to Be Good.

Just when we thought it was safe to pigeonhole Nick Hornby -- the author of the popular "male confessional" novels High Fidelity and About a Boy and the memoir Fever Pitch -- as the voice of the contemporary dysfunctional Everyman, he turns around and does the unthinkable: He writes from the voice of a woman. Unlike many commercially successful authors content to issue carbon copies of their previous lucrative endeavors, Hornby apparently takes to a challenge. In his latest novel, How to Be Good, the story of an embittered couple engaged in "marital warfare," Hornby enters the realm of the opposite sex with a 40-ish narrator, Katie Carr -- a bored, slightly unhinged doctor who tells her husband over the cell phone that she wants a divorce.

Like Hornby's previous novels, How to Be Good is not particularly earth-shattering or stylistically clever. But it is a well-written, compassionate, and meticulously thorough analysis of domesticity and upper-middle-class ennui. In fact, in a recent interview published on the Web site of British newspaper Guardian Unlimited, Hornby acknowledges that "Nothing happens in [his] books." So how do you explain his overwhelming appeal? It's because he is a master of realism, delivering likable characters that are instantly recognizable: Katie cheats on her husband, not because she's particularly drawn to her lover, but because she just wants the "opportunity to rebuild [herself] from scratch." Hornby's simple observations capture life's truisms with minimal pathos and melodrama: After Katie tells her husband she wants a divorce, he basically ignores her. "We have a great belief in the power of words," she muses. "We read, we talk, we write, we have therapists and counselors and priests ... so it comes as something of a shock to me that my words ... might just as well have been bubbles. So now what? What happens when words fail us?"

British author  Nick Hornby  teaches readers How to Be Good  in 
his new novel.
Jim Pilkington
British author Nick Hornby teaches readers How to Be Good in his new novel.


Tuesday, July 17, at 7 p.m.

Admission is free


He will also speak Wednesday, July 18, at 12:30 p.m. at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market (at Second Street), S.F.

Admission is $7-10


Park Branch Library

1833 Page (at Cole), S.F.

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Luckily for us, Hornby's words have not failed us. A former journalist and English teacher (he's also The New Yorker's pop music critic), he is the rare author to attain critical and commercial success: Both Fever Pitch and High Fidelity have been made into movies, and the film version of About a Boyis in the works. But whether Hornby is looking to expand as a writer or possibly to understand his own divorce, his characters seem to be growing up -- however reluctantly. And whether he is writing from the viewpoint of a man or a woman, he is drawn to the Big Questions and themes of virtue, love, commitment, and the Meaning of Life, yet he grounds them in mundane details of everyday life. Perhaps what is most appealing and frustrating about Hornby is that he raises questions he is not necessarily able to answer, no matter how much we'd like him to. Maybe it's because he is figuring them out for himself. Hopefully by his next novel, he'll have the answers and be able to spell them out for the rest of us.

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