Funny Girl

A Novel by Nick Hornby

Publisher:  Riverhead Books (The Penguin Group)

Copyright: 2014, New York, New York

Funny Girl is Nick Hornby’s first new novel in five years.  Hornby is best known for his novels High Fidelity and About a Boy.  Some of his awards include the National Book Critics Circle Award, Whitbread Novel Award, and ALA Best Books for Young Adults.

Funny girl is about protagonist Barbara Parker from Blackpool, England.  Barbara begins her journey of wanting to be more than just another beauty queen when she gives up her crown and moves to London to pursue her dreams of becoming a comedienne, much like her American idol Lucille Ball.  We immediately learn that Barbara is a strong, smart, beautiful young woman, quite capable and unafraid of doing what she needs to do to live out her dreams.

In the beginning her father wants her to stay in Blackpool and live out her term as Blackpool’s beauty pageant winner.  Hornby does a great job of creating a female character of her own mind and strong will as Barbara leaves her crown behind to the second place winner and moves to London.

Barbara’s move to London is not without struggle, however, as she finds herself a roommate (Marjorie), and a job in a department store, she quickly discovers how discouraging life can be while pursuing her dream.  Barbara doesn’t immediately find acting work, and in fact her roommate Marjorie schools her on the use of men in her pursuit.  Barbara begins to doubt that she can make it in to acting without being on the arm of a man, something that in this time period may have been a very real issue.  This is something of a disappointment to Barbara, even though she tries it briefly anyway by having a date with a married man.

Brian, who is Barbara’s agent by accident and who is happily married and not looking to use Barbara for anything other than to make her a soubrette (a minor female role in a comedy, typically that of a pert maidservant).  She tells Brian she wishes to audition for legitimate acting gigs. Hornby gives an accurate description in the absurdity of an actresses struggle as she bombs every one of her auditions. Brian gives her a record to improve her accent and then he finds her a script from Comedy Playhouse, a series of one half hour shows the BBC uses to launch new comedies, which is exactly what she’s searching for.  Barbara lands an audition for a new BBC sitcom, and her success and run to stardom happens absurdly fast.  Barbara introduces herself to Clive, Tony, Dennis, and Bill as Sophie Straw, her spontaneously made up screen name.  It becomes ironic that she gets to play the part of Barbara from Blackpool, who is married to Jim (Clive’s character).  Hornby does a good job of writing what could be called a comedic script inside of a comedic script.  The BBC sitcom Barbara (and Jim), becomes a hit and so does Sophie become a star.  The off screen shenanigans begin when Sophie and Clive begin having their own real life love affair, with Dennis (the producer), in the background quietly falling in love with Sophie, for a big dose of unrequited love.  Who does Ms. Straw wind up marrying in the end?

The ongoing dialog of this diverse group of characters is very engaging and humorous, along with the slightly controversial relationships between the writers Tony and Bill.  This is an English twist on sitcoms with a female star, much like Lucille Ball in the United States.  Hornby adds in photographs of script writers and celebrities from that time period, portraying the fictional Barbara in a historically accurate setting.

Many young ladies of yesterday and today dream of becoming a star, but the comedic genius of Barbara is what draws an immediate kinship with the character as a female with bigger than life dreams, leaving behind the safety of her hometown to make them happen.  Her character is fearless.  Sophie is as loveable as her leading men portray.  Sophie “grows up” in the lifetime of her career and the time period of the book. The book is a great read for enjoying lots of dialog, romance, and learning what it’s like to be on the set of a comedy, and walk in the shoes of a smart, funny, leading lady from the historical 50s and 60s.  This book gives some inside historically accurate type of “dirt” in an historically accurate setting, all the while using fictional characters to reveal some of the inside scoop of the trials and tribulations of actors and actresses, scriptwriters, and producers during this time period. It doesn’t become overly dramatic or too personal with character assassination.  This is wonderfully light read with some deeper underlying issues made slightly absurd through Hornby’s writing genius.  Funny Girl is a recommended read for Nick Hornby fans.

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