By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books. 452 pages. $27.95
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Reviewed by Hillary Rea
These days the phrase Women aren't funny is the entertainment industry's hot topic for debate. With every snide remark against a Lena, an Amy, or a Tina, there is a show with the word Girl in it to fight back against every anti-comedienne naysayer.
Now there is a novel, Funny Girl, the latest from the British author Nick Hornby, that grapples with this issue, but in a different era. It has its moments, but in the end it fails to do its time or subject full justice.
Though it jumps ahead to today, Funny Girl focuses mainly on a British situation comedy in the 1960s and its star, Sophie Straw. Sophie starts out as Barbara Parker, winner of the 1964 Miss Blackpool beauty pageant. No one will look past her pretty face, blonde hair, and curvaceous figure to see that she has wit, charm, and comedic timing. (Clearly, Bob Dylan's 1964 hit "The Times They Are a-Changin' " had nothing to do with gender equality in comedy.)
Barbara chooses laughs over looks and heads to London to pursue a career as a comedic actress, changing her name to Sophie along the way. There is no struggle on her way to the top. Sophie is quick to rise, landing the lead role in the sitcom Barbara (and Jim), loosely based on her life as Barbara from Blackpool.
Once the fire is lit, the story strays from Sophie to the rise and fall of Barbara (and Jim), seen through the eyes of the all-male ensemble behind it. Chapters alternate perspective, dipping into the lives of Sophie's costar Clive (the Jim in parentheses); the show's writers, Tony and Bill; and their producer, Dennis. Focus never rests long enough to really simmer in any character's point of view.
Because no single voice leads us through the novel, it's hard to buckle in for the long haul. Instead, the world of each character is showcased, as in a sitcom, in short bursts, with an ensemble cast of characters.
Nick Hornby is best known for writing "lad lit," and despite Barbara/Sophie, the men in this story are the richer roles. Two characters, in particular, deserve spin-off novels.
There's the conflicted Bill, who ultimately chooses art over industry, yet somehow makes a big splash as an out-of-the-closet homosexual novelist: "Bill suddenly felt weak with relief. He had had enough of trying to guess the thoughts and feelings of eighteen million people he didn't know. He wanted to talk to the few thousand he did."
Then there's Dennis. He comes to terms with his failed marriage once he realizes he's been in love with Sophie since the moment they met and spends their first date cuddling in bed after attending the opening night of Hair. He reflects, "What kind of idiot would go and see Hair on a first date?"
For a novel set in London's Swinging '60s, Funny Girl seldom feels deeper than a light dusting of cultural history. We get a touch of the women's rights movement, a dash of racial segregation, and a sprinkling of unwanted pregnancy controversy. In the book's shining scene, Hornby goes into humorous detail about audience response to Hair the day after the Theatres Act is passed, allowing nudity on the West End stage for the first time. This is the only chapter that fully lives in the period.
With much jumping around in the middle, Funny Girl begins and ends with Sophie's story. In the final chapters, it is 2014 and Sophie is in her 70s and attending a British Academy of Film and Television honors ceremony for Barbara and (Jim). This flash-forward avoids predictable sentiment. The ending is so strong it is a shame the book was not written through Sophie's lens throughout:
It was absurd that they were getting old, thought Sophie - absurd and wrong. Old people had black-and-white memories of wars, music halls, wretched diseases, candlelight. Her memories were in color, and they involved loud music and discos, Biba and Habitat, Marlon Brando and butter.
Sophie is funny. Funny Girl would have done better to include more of her colorful memories.