'How to Be Good' by Nick Hornby (2001)

How to Be Good had a curious effect on me while reading it. Not to sound like the protagonist — whose continued insistence of goodness based on her occupation annoyed me after the first 20 pages – but I think that I’m a good liberal: I work at a nonprofit organization for very little money; I vote; I help out the Democratic party when I can (and agree); I volunteer at a food bank a few times a month; I don’t eat meat because I disagree with the treatment of animals in the meat industry and I try to stick to my values in other ways. But How to Be Good revealed great gaps between potential liberalism and realized liberalism. There isn’t an empty spare bedroom in my apartment, but I do have an air mattress and a living room that some homeless people could be using. Am I a bad liberal because I would never consider allowing a stranger to live with me? Even though at the most obvious level I was mocking GoodNews and David’s plans for being good, I was provoked to think about things that I do to be good and what I could do better.

In this novel, Hornby managed to create an almost conservative form of liberalism in a way. I’ve always envied staunch conservatives because they have the ability to paint an “us” versus “them” picture of the world. They have a clearly defined world in which there are good people and there are bad people and no one falls somewhere in the middle. Liberals often do not have the liberty of living in such a bifurcated world. Personally, I almost constantly feel trapped in the liberal paradox of we accept everyone except those who do not accept everyone. But GoodNews and David’s reasoning has the clarity and exclusionary attributes of the reasoning of the most conservative Republican.

One very brief part of the novel that I found interesting was the narrator’s ruminations about what life after divorce would be like for her family. Because of their respective careers, the narrator occupies the work sphere while her husband dominates the home sphere, which obviously is the reverse of what one is encouraged to accept as standard gender roles. The narrator’s realization that she fills more of “the man’s role” in her household causes her to ask her son if he thinks of her as his “mum” or his “dad.” I don’t know of any kid whose answer would have differed from Tom because the use of “mom” and “dad” or some equivalent is intended (linguistically at least) to differentiate from male and female parent. However, there is so much more associated with the word “mother” than just a pair of ovaries and a uterus and the same for “father.” When same-sex couples have children, most do not slap the word for a biologically female parent on a male or vice versa (unless one person in the couple is transgendered). Even if one parent in a lesbian couple stays at home with the children and the other works, their children usually call both parents “mommy.” I’m rambling, but I think it’s interesting when literal interpretation and interpretation based on social conditioning begin to tussle.

One small complaint for me about this book: for the first 30 pages or so I was often surprised by references to the narrator’s sex. Hornby most often and most deftly narrates with a male voice and his narrative voice didn’t change that much in the case of his narrator being a woman.