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How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

Hornby's third novel, while retaining much of his patented droll humor, eschews the happy endings of its predecessors and is vastly more ambitious and ultimately sobering.

By Phil Catalfo

(Riverhead Books)

Nick hornby's first novel, High Fidelity, which skewered the self-centeredness and commitment phobia of the modern male, was an international bestseller and spawned a hit movie; his second, About a Boy, worked the same fertile territory in a somewhat more developed story about a guy who realized, unlike his literary antecedent in the first novel, that his life actually did depend on his ability to connect meaningfully with others.

Hornby's third novel, while retaining much of his patented droll humor, eschews the happy endings of its predecessors and is vastly more ambitious and ultimately sobering, for it asks troubling, untidy questions, such as: What does it mean to live a good—i.e., virtuous—life? Is that even possible? And what can we fall back on while we're figuring that out?

Hornby's protagonist, Katie Carr, a fortyish physician in north London, is unhappily married to David, an acerbic, underachieving journalist—he writes a weekly column called "The Angriest Man in Holloway" for a local paper and toils fitfully on a doomed novel—and barely manages to cohabit with him in the home they share with their two young children. Indeed, as the novel opens, she is in the middle of (a) an unsatisfying affair and (b) declaring to her husband that she wants a divorce.

But just when it seems all hell will break loose, heaven breaks out instead. Or at least, a latter-day, unreasonable facsimile of heaven: David hooks up with a guru who goes by the handle "DJ GoodNews," realizes he has been insufferably callous to Katie and the rest of the world, and decides to devote himself wholeheartedly (and boneheadedly) to making amends to both parties. When David and GoodNews launch their (mostly disastrous) campaigns, manipulatively angelic daughter Molly enlists, hard-bitten preteen son Tom chooses conscientious objection, and Katie descends into utter bewilderment and despair. She doesn't "want David to be David anymore"—meaning she doesn't want his "permanent scowl"—but she does "want things to be structurally the same"—meaning she doesn't want her life to be turned upside down either by the trauma of a divorce or by an unyielding quest for moral purity and boundless compassion.

David, the former professional cynic, wants his family to examine their every act in terms of how they can effect the highest good for the greatest number. Katie's response is that as a physician she is dedicated to helping suffering people every day—isn't that "good" enough?—and that she merely wants a refuge from the chaos and pain of the world at large. Her struggle is a tidy summation of how modern living has managed to complicate love and obscure the nature of compassion; the story's stark ending leaves us fumbling for our own understanding of what it will take for us to Be Good.

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