Nick Hornby is an expert story-teller who reveals the nuances of his characters’ lives, and in the process, allows readers to understand a world unlike their own. His expert lens is most often trained on male characters, although 2001’s How to Be Good is an exception, and the male protagonists in 2009’s Juliet, Naked, share pages with a strong woman who goes beyond love interest.
Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, treads in less familiar territory. Not only is it centered on a woman, it’s also set in the past. He has entrenched his female protagonist in a man’s world: that of comedic actors in the 1960s. Today, Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler stand out among their peers; in the world of Funny Girl’s Barbara Parker, Lucille Ball is the aspiring actress’ only role model.
But Barbara is determined to move ahead, no matter the cost. After earning the title of Miss Blackpool 1964, she realizes the crown is only a guarantee that she’ll be stuck in Blackpool indefinitely. So Barbara packs her bags, moves to London and ultimately transforms herself into Sophie Straw, a darling of the silver screen.
The novel feels bloated at times, as it traverses decades of Sophie’s eventful life. But as Hornby chronicles Sophie’s development as an actress and the ways class and age influence life and love, he reveals a portrait of an era—and of a woman crafting a lasting legacy.