In his charming and humorous latest novel, “Funny Girl, ”Nick Hornby takes us to TV land and swinging mid-1960s London. The titular character is It girl comedic actress Sophie Straw, a “quick-witted, unpretentious, high-spirited, funny, curvy, clever, beautiful blonde.” Her looks and charisma land her the lead role in a new BBC sitcom.
Hornby follows her and her colleagues (costar Clive, producer Dennis and writers Bill and Tony) as “Barbara (and Jim)” becomes a big hit and Britain relishes its postwar cool.
But the biggest success of the novel is Hornby’s thoughtful ruminations on the complexities of love. As the characters transverse the arc of their lives, coming to grips with sexual orientation, fidelity, sacrifice and acceptance, Hornby skillfully addresses the challenges we all face seeking connection with another human being. Here are a few notable examples:
As the character Dennis struggles with his infatuation with his wife, who clearly doesn’t love him back, he says:
How on earth could he love her? But he did. Or, at least, she made him feel sick, sad and distracted. Perhaps there was another way of describing that unique and useless combination of feelings, but “love” would have to do for now.
Most of us have been in this situation: confusing pain and need for love. It’s as unhealthy as it is inevitable in our lives. Let’s hope we learn the difference early on and save ourselves from repeating this form of suffering.
And there’s the lessons learned from the story of the married couple Tony and June, who love each other but endure so much trouble due to Tony’s sexual orientation struggles.
“It’s funny, sex,” she said. “It’s a little thing like a glass of water is a little thing. Or something that falls off a car and only costs a couple of bob to replace. It’s only a little thing, but nothing works without it.”
We wish this wasn’t true, but it is. A relationship without sex is a beautiful friendship, but as humans, we crave more. It’s that thrust into the divine, that touching of the infinite that loving sex provides like nothing else. And without it—as much as we can deny it to ourselves—we are always left with a sense of deep spiritual longing.
And the need for vulnerable bravery in the search for love, as shown by Dennis when he struggles to muster up the strength to tell Sophie he loves her:
He was finding it increasingly hard to keep it bottled up, however. That wasn’t the point of love, in his opinion. Love meant being brave, otherwise, you had already lost your own argument: the man who couldn’t tell a woman he loved her was, by definition, not worthy of her.
So true. How many opportunities for connection have we squandered because of our fear? Rejection is a small price to pay compared to what we miss by failing to even try. Only by exposing our hearts to the very-real possibility of being broken do we have the chance of having our love reciprocated. So hard, and yet so necessary for a fulfilling life.
And then there is the need to get past our own pathetic, unnecessary fear of . . . looking stupid. When the shy Dennis finally gets the opportunity to spend the night dancing with Sophie, he learns how much we miss when decorum trumps letting our souls free.
He kept moving to the music, just in case she thought he didn’t want to be up there. To his surprise, he did—but then, he wanted to be anywhere Sophie was, no matter how much embarrassment might ensue. And anyway, proximity to Sophie meant that embarrassment was no longer the terrifying ogre he always believed it to be. Perhaps he would wake up the next morning realizing that he’d made an utter ass of himself, but there were worse animals than the ass.
Love is messy, beautiful, painful, confusing, and ultimately, the reason we are here. Give yourself over to it.