Spring has arrived, and my mood is lighter. When picking out my latest Book on CD, I naturally gravitated towards the latest comedic offering by the author of About A Boy and High Fidelity. Funny Girl introduced me to a delightful character named Sophie Straw (originally Barbara Parker) who has changed her name and her life, as she headed from England’s northwest coast to London to chase a future in comedy. Sophie adores Lucille Ball, and the highlight of her mundane childhood was her time spent in front of the TV devouring her favorite comedy shows. Her mother left Sophie’s family at an early age, leaving her to be raised by her working class father. Young Sophie had many insecurities, was naïve and relatively uneducated, but she possessed enthusiasm, good looks (think busty blonde), and great comic timing, which led to incredibly swift success in London. She charmed her way to a lead spot on a BBC radio show, that was picked up as a television series.
The book is set in 1960s London, which adds depth to the novel. At this time, homosexuality was still a crime, women were still regarded as inferior in many respects, there was a great divide between the working and upper classes, and people were just starting to talk about openly about sex. The wild popularity of the show Barbara (and Jim) with Britain’s general populace, actually disturbs many people in the upper, more educated class. A televised debate within the book prompts an interesting discussion about the role of a comedy series exhibiting honest, predictable humour, and its value to society as a unifying tool. The book also pokes fun at the fans who can’t seem to distinguish the television character from the actual actor. Clive (Sophie’s on air husband)finds it challenging to date women other than Sophie, because people he meets in real life feel he is cheating on Barbara (Sophie’s character on TV).
The cast of characters in this book is quite intriguing. The comedy writers Tony and Bill are interesting, well-developed characters who banter and bicker as they struggle to create funny scripts without resorting to an abundance of potty humour, navigate the complexities associated with closeted homosexuality, and pay the bills. All the dialogue is rife with dry humour and the relationships are not too complex, as all the misunderstandings seem to be conveniently resolved. Hornby seems to have deliberately chosen a writing style that mirrors that of the cozy comedies from this period. The writing style is conversational and breezy, and the tone switches from melancholy to funny. I found myself laughing both at the characters and with the characters. Dennis, a television show producer and director, feels positively bohemian because he is wearing an open-collared shirt! Sophie’s engagement with Clive (who is also her husband on her television show) seems destined for failure. Clive is likeable, but a predictable womanizer who has not grown up enough to have a real relationship with anyone but himself. I was rooting for Sophie to recognize her true love…and so will you, if you give this book a chance!
If you like this book, try reading:
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying. And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot–searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier. What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion–along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams. – Publisher Summary