Funny Girl by Nick HornbySet in 1960s London, Funny Girl is a lively account of the adventures of the intrepid young Sophie Straw as she navigates her transformation from provincial ingénue to television starlet amid a constellation of delightful characters.
Insightful and humorous, Nick Hornbys Funny Girl does what he does best: endears us to a cast of characters who are funny if flawed, and forces us to examine ourselves in the process.
Funny Girl review – Nick Hornby’s tribute to the golden age of light entertainment
And this novel is not even remotely perfect. In a fit of youthful idealism, she heads to the bright lights of the cosmetics counter of a London department store. At first, Sophie is told not to open her mouth to spoil the effect. After all, she is: a a woman and so much better appreciated silent; and b from Lancashire. But when she auditions for a BBC comedy and outshines the men, her fate is sealed.
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Novels should be like TV. It starts in , in northern England, where Barbara Parker is just about to win the Miss Blackpool pageant. The opening scene of wholesome poolside banter between Barbara and her father sets the tone. Look at you. Barbara, who adopts the stage name Sophie Straw, is not an especially dynamic character. And most of what she does best is wisely left off the page. She comes across as less fierce than Hornby suggests we take her.
There is something very different in writing characters who are able to appear, arthritic and curmudgeonly, in present-day Eastbourne in a chapter at the end of the novel to, for instance, the literary time travel we get in Wolf Hall or The Blue Flower. Funny Girl carries about it a particular nostalgic glow that, I think, comes from Hornby viewing the 60s through the misty eyes of his aged, present-day protagonists. The novel follows the life of Barbara Parker, briefly the winner of Miss Blackpool she returns the award as it would mean staying in her hometown for a year of ribbon-cutting. Barbara, who dreams of stardom and idolises Lucille Ball, moves to London, changes her name to Sophie Straw, and with little effort scores herself a role as the star of the television sitcom Barbara and Jim. There is a reason why comedians feature so rarely in novels: what is funny in a book is rather different to what is funny on stage or screen. Hornby is a good comic writer, but wisely avoids giving us too much of the material Sophie delivers as she rises to stardom.
His conclusion? It also lies behind his new novel, which is both a heartfelt defence and a wholly convincing example of what popular entertainment can achieve. When we first meet the funny girl of the title, she is called Barbara Parker and about to be named Miss Blackpool Fifteen minutes later, she renounces her crown and, within a week, heads to London to follow her dream of going on telly and making people laugh. In a grimmer novel, this would presumably be the cue for an unsparing depiction of dashed hopes, loneliness and despair.