Recently I’ve Read … Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

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The ‘funny girl’ of the title is Barbara, who prematurely ends her reign as Miss Blackpool in order to follow her dream of becoming the British Lucille Ball.

Casting off her victor’s sash and tiara, Barbara heads to swinging 60s London. After a brief struggle, Barbara is reinvented as Sophie Straw and becomes a household name as the star of the trailblazing sitcom Barbara (and Jim).

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My relationship with this novel see-sawed somewhat. At first, I just couldn’t seem to engage with it. Too many similar male characters were introduced at once and they all seemed to blur. This contributed to the slightly sketchy feel of the piece: to me, Hornby’s prose read like a script with little in the way of fleshing out.

Indeed, the whole novel is lacking in atmosphere and I never felt the author was fully able to evoke the atmosphere of the 1960s. The sitcom Barbara (and Jim) was only ever vaguely rendered, too.

However, as the novel drew to a close, I did become involved with the characters – though never really Sophie/Barbara, who remained distant. It was the writers, Tony and Bill, who won my affection, and the really rather lovely producer, Dennis who won my heart.

The novel’s finale engages with some very interesting themes, particularly ageing and identity, and the changing status of popular entertainment. The whole novel is a love letter to, and a reminder of the artistry of, the 30-minute sitcom.

These are unusual and worthwhile themes to examine in fiction so, all in all, Funny Girl is a very interesting novel. But its world is too hazily sketched and difficult to picture. Ultimately, this book feels frustratingly incomplete and vague, like a script waiting to be brought fully to life.

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