Sunday, September 20, 2015

Funny Girl - the sitcom star

book review

Nick Hornby's latest novel falls short of the standard set by his popular works, About a Boy and High Fidelity

Book: Funny Girl
Author: Nick Hornby

The cover of his latest novel, Funny Girl, helpfully tells us that Nick Hornby is “the author of About a Boy”. The intent of this declaration, one would assume, is to remind us of the power of the writer’s magnum opus; its actual effect, however, is a bit more depressing — the inscription simply serves as a reminder that the author hasn’t written anything that even comes close to his most famous tome ever since. Sure his subsequent fiction has been pleasantly charming, but none of it has been able to match the memorability of his first two novels — High Fidelity and About a Boy. The aforementioned Funny Girl similarly adds to the list of Hornby’s amusing but ultimately inessential comedies.

The writer’s seventh novel shares both its title and era with the 1960s Barbra Streisand musical and film; its focus, however, is on a different medium of entertainment: British television.

The protagonist is Barbara Parker, a stunning 19-year-old aspiring actress who is coaxed by her Auntie Marie to enter the Miss Blackpool pageant. Despite not wanting to be a beauty queen, she ends up becoming one anyway as she wins the competition, but then promptly relinquishes the title to pursue her dream of becoming a comedienne instead. Inspired by Lucille Ball, she heads to London in the hopes of finding fame as a television actress, a goal she achieves (improbably) easily.

After fortuitously running into theatrical agent Brian Debenham who immediately offers to represent her, Barbara changes her name to Sophie Straw and starts looking for work as an actress. An audition for an episode of BBC’s Comedy Playhouse leaves the project’s team — writers Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner, producer Dennis Maxwell-Bishop, and actor Clive Richardson — enamoured with her. The writers promptly discard their script and start working on a new one just for her with the hopes of transforming it into a series. This results in the development of the sitcom Barbara (and Jim), which is, of course, a big hit. Sophie thereby becomes an overnight success as she goes from being a complete unknown with no acting experience to the star of the “most popular comedy series in Britain”.

Funny Girl chronicles the entire seasonal run of Barbara (and Jim), using the events and developments surrounding the show as a chance to capture a snapshot of ’60s pop culture while exploring subjects like fame, politics, sexuality, love, fulfilment, and the merits of light entertainment. Hornby’s wry wit continues to be his strength. His breezy prose and amusing dialogues make the novel an enjoyable read (while reminding you that the author has clearly been busy working on screenplays of late).

What makes Funny Girl significantly less engaging than Hornby’s previous efforts, however, is the book’s protagonist. The story revolves around Sophie even though she is the least compelling individual in it. It seems like the writer is smitten with his own character and keeps telling us how wonderful she is without giving us any evidence of her talent, wit, or charm. We never get a sense that she actually cares about making people laugh (or cares about people at all for that matter). Her arc is simultaneously stereotypical and unconvincing. There isn’t enough struggle or conflict in her story, which makes it hard to empathise with or relate to her. The other, more fascinating characters that appear in the book — like the writers Tony and Bill, for instance — could have been more interesting in the central role; delving into their tales could have potentially led to a more original plot that would have made the novel more insightful and rewarding.

Its setting, too, could have been explored with more depth. Hornby doesn’t take full advantage of the era he sets the story in. As he looks at the changing landscape of Britain with a young generation breaking away from restrictions and powering societal change, the writer introduces several weighty topics but then merely skims their surface and moves on without a satisfying look at their intricacies.

On the whole, even though Hornby’s style remains enjoyable, Funny Girl doesn’t rank among his best novels. The book offers an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the makings of a ’60s Britcom, but its execution is too safe and predictable. Its storyline isn’t very strong, and focusing it on a conventional character robs it of the potential quirks and originality that could have made it more memorable. Neither the book nor its protagonist is as funny as the title suggests. Still, the novel is sweet and pleasant, and if you are looking for a light, easy read, then Funny Girl will fit the bill.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 20th September, 2015 *

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