Nick Hornby’s latest novel, Funny Girl, is essentially a love letter to Lucille Ball – the grand dame of 1950s’ TV comedy. Our hero Barbara is a working-class Blackpool girl blessed with beautiful looks, headstrong determination and a self-defined funny bone… who makes her way to London in pursuit of aping her hero Lucille and becoming a comedian herself.
But given the set-up for Funny Girl, it’s notable how little of this story is actually Barbara’s – or Sophie, as she soon becomes known as. Maybe this is because Funny Girl is written by a man, but we read very little of the book from Barbara’s perspective, instead following the story from the men that surround her: co-star Clive, producer Dennis, scriptwriters Bill and Tony. We’re only a few chapters in before Barbara herself seems like simply a device to drive the men’s stories forwards.
Once in London, Barbara/Sophie quickly attracts the attention of a kindly agent and before long she is cast as the lead in a new BBC sitcom – which naturally becomes a hit, catapulting her into the limelight and role of national darling. Yet we read very little of how all of this affects Barbara/Sophie and of the world in which she lives, instead we read more about Bill’s literary ambitions, Tony’s charade of a marriage, Clive’s emotional immaturity, and Dennis’ torch that he holds for the funny girl of the title.
But Funny Girl is an enjoyably readable book – the most engaging and compelling of Nick Hornby’s novels, in my opinion, since High Fidelity back in 1995. Maybe this is because Hornby’s own love for Lucille Ball rivals his passion for glorious record shops? I found it frustrating that so little of Funny Girl focused on the funny girl of the title, and that we learned so little about why Lucille Ball was such an inspiration on Barbara/Sophie, but as a call back to the golden age of light entertainment, the novel is a fun and light read.