I confess I have not read any of Hornby’s previous novels, but I have watched, several times, the movie adaptation of About a Boy, mostly because it starred Hugh Grant, but also because it has a story that speaks to me.
Funny Girl does not address contemporary life in the same way as About a Boy. It’s set in post-war England where young Barbara, whose mother ran off when she was young, watches Lucille Ball and studies her comedy. Blackpool does not offer many opportunities for a budding female comic, so Barbara packs up and heads to London, where she is stuck in a Cosmetics counter job until an agent finds her and sends her to an audition he believes will force her to give up acting and admit she is a model. Instead she walks into the audition, charms the writers and the script is rewritten around her–and so Barbara (and Jim) is born, a series about an educated Londoner working at 10 Downing Street who meets a less educated northern girl in a department store and, against the odds, marries her. The series is cutting edge, until someone else realizes its success and goes all the way to portray actual working-class families having working-class conversations. Barbara (who takes the name Sophie even though she ends up playing a Barbara) sleeps with her costar, gets her own apartment, telephone, and television, and feels quite modern, but still not part of the crowd. Her lack of education is a deficit, but her comedic intuition and honest character keep her in good standing regardless.
The series continues too long and ends in a separation, the first of its kind on British television. The end of the series is the beginning of something better for Sophie, however, as she ditches her costar and admits to a slow-growing love that becomes the love of her life.
Hornby jumps from this moment to a reunion of the Barbara (and Jim) group at a BAFTA tribute as a chance to catch up with the group decades later and to show Sophie’s continuing desire to work, to make people laugh.
This was, for me, the most interesting part of the novel–a portrayal of elderly people as not just wanting to sit and think about the past, but wanting to keep making a present. Seeing the women’s movement happen around Sophie was background and not revelatory. Thinking about old age in a new way is the drive of our time as the boomers become the elderly. Thinking about how widows move forward (given the statistics of life expectancy by sex) is a huge question.