‘Funny Girl’ by Nick Hornby (2015) – 452 pages Grade: B+
In ‘Funny Girl’ our heroine, Barbara Parker aka Sophie Straw, is a teenager in Blackpool in northern England who idolizes Lucille Ball whom our girl watches on TV in ‘I Love Lucy’ episodes. It’s the Sixties, and she wants to become a female comedienne just like Lucy. Our girl is very beautiful like early Lucy, and she wins a Blackpool beauty contest which doesn’t suit her at all. She goes off to London in the hopes of someday doing comedy but meanwhile working at a cosmetics counter.
Things happen quickly, and soon she lands the lead role on a BBC situation comedy called ‘Barbara (and Jim)’. We meet the diverse group of professionals who put on the show, and soon the show is a huge success. Later much of the story concerns Barbara/Sophie finding a suitable mate.
The novel itself is a lot like a workplace situation comedy more like ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ than ‘I Love Lucy’. The plot centers around the small group of characters who put on the show including the stars, the director/producer, and the two writers.
‘Funny Girl’ is clever and cute, perhaps a little too clever and a little too cute with few rough edges. Barbara at the center of it faces no difficulties becoming a comedy star, and she is one automatically with the first episode of her first show. It probably would have been more realistic if she had to struggle a bit to attain stardom. Even Lucy had her struggles in Hollywood before she became a TV star.
But the focus of the novel is on the motley crew who make the show. The show’s leading man Clive makes love to many women but adores only himself. The two writers Tony and Bill had previously got arrested together for a homosexual encounter (The novel begins in 1964), but later Tony gets married to a woman while Bill becomes an outspoken advocate of gay rights with a promiscuous lifestyle. Much of the humor of the novel comes from the talk between Tony and Bill who must come up with standard TV fare for each episode. Then there is the producer/director Dennis who is the steady glue that holds the team together.
Like any good sit-com. ‘Funny Girl’ has its strong emotionally touching moments scattered amongst the humorous scenes.
I could see ‘Funny Girl’ doing well as a romantic comedy of a movie. Nick Hornby has a sure hand for clever dialogue and humorous situations. However I expect even a light novel to go deeper into its characters than ‘Funny Girl’ does. Things stay relentlessly on the surface here. We readers glide along on the humor and cuteness of the scenes and characters, but I doubt any of us will give the novel another thought after ending it.
However I do think light humor alone is a worthy goal, and ‘Funny Girl’ was fun while it lasted.