I haven’t blogged in a while because I started a new job. When you’re updating websites all day at the office, it’s hard to come home and spend time on your own.
Yet I also have been reading more because of my commute. Inspired by Nick Hornby’s screenwriting in Brooklyn, I read his latest novel, Funny Girl, a lighthearted romp through swinging sixties’ London.
In the book, gorgeous Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball. It opens with a drab beauty pageant, where she is crowned Miss Blackpool — only to reject the crown and flee to London. Soon Barbara, neé “Sophie Straw,” lands her big break. A gaggle of BBC writers and producers spot their diamond in the rough and retool a domestic sitcom pilot. She’s a smash.
The book is pure winsome comedy, with Hornby’s requisite cast of beguiling characters, minor conflicts and bittersweet resolution. Until Funny Girl, most of Hornby’s novels focused mostly on boys and men. They diverge from his screenplays. An Education, Wild and Brooklyn are dramas of complicated, ambitious young women struggling to self-define — even though it comes at a loss.
An Education shows the cost on a teenage girl entering into an affair with a man several decades her senior. She’s no Lolita nor simple victim, but the undercurrents of anxiety deepen as the narrative unfolds and her prospects for an actual university education are jeopardized.
Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of walking the Pacific Coast Trail to grieve her mother and her own lost sense of self. Near the beginning, Strayed quotes Emily Dickinson: “If your nerve deny you/go above your nerve.” And so she does. Hornby avoids emulating the bestselling book. Instead, he focuses on the medium of film having its own unique capacity to represent the scattering and devastating rhythm of grief through jarring memories.
At first, Funny Girl seems a different breed. Yet Barbara/Sophie is just as invested in self-defining as her cinematic sisters. For example, she’s gutsy enough to criticize the sitcom mid-audition. Then she joins the writers in re-writing the show that turns her into a star. And her show is titled — with parentheses deliberate — Barbara (and Jim). It’s her show, not the couple’s.
The biggest villain of Funny Girl is a snobby TV critic named Vernon Whitfield. He dismisses shows like Barbara (and Jim) — and by extension the people who love them. As the show’s producer reflects: “What a terrible thing an education was, he thought, if it produced the kind of mind that despised entertainment and the people who valued it.”
Here is where Hornby’s stories converge. Whether drama or comedy, his writing sits squarely in the popular. Whether it’s the freshness of confronting class wars in Funny Girl or the high-profile unsentimental dramas of girls’ and women’s lives in An Education, Wild and Brooklyn, Hornby doesn’t reject the popular — even, and perhaps especially, for the girls and women it too often leaves behind.