How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (published 2001 by Viking/Penguin Books)
I bought this book at Powell’s on a whim after my friend recommended it to me. It proved to be a good decision.
Set in North London (so of course I love it…), the book is narrated by Dr. Katie Carr. Her entire life, she has sought to be a “good” person. Yet her life is falling apart: she and her husband, David, have a bitter relationship and she ends up having an affair. Then David meets a faith healer hippy named DJ GoodNews who is, surprisingly, able to work some miracles. Because of GoodNews, David has a change of heart and starts to change the world for good, forcing Katie to question her own definition of goodness. But all of David’s and GoodNews’s schemes to bring about “good” actually end up backfiring and causing more stress on their relationship. But how can Katie argue with them wanting to bring homeless kids into their house to live? Isn’t that “good”? How can she argue with David giving away their children’s possessions? It’s true—they have a surplus of entertainment available to them. So why does trying to be good make their lives more miserable?
The book hits on important spiritual elements of our lives, mainly guilt and our desire to be good. At one point, Katie’s brother says, “I don’t believe in Heaven or anything. But I want to be the kind of person that qualifies for entry anyway.” Katie feels intensely guilty about having an affair, treating David poorly, not being able to cure all of her patients, and the various ways she fails as a mother. She tries to compensate for this by attempting to prove her goodness. Yet, the whole time, she’s not really sure what she’s looking for. What would ever actually make her feel like she’s arrived, like she’s achieved “goodness”?
She talks about Christianity often:
“When I look at my sins (and if I think they’re sins, then they are sins), I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it’s not the Christianity that’s so alluring; it’s the rebirth. Because who wouldn’t wish to start all over again?”
But she realizes that she’s missing something. She remembers that 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Without love I am nothing at all.” That’s how she feels—she’s lost love, and now she is nothing at all.
“Oh, I’m not talking about romantic love, the mad hunger for someone you don’t know very well. And the feelings that constitute my working week—guilt, of course, and fear and irritation, and a few other ignoble distractions that simply serve to make me unwell half the time—are not enough for me, nor for anybody. I’m talking about love which used to feel something like optimism, benignity…Where did that go? I just seemed to run out of steam somewhere along the line. I ended up disappointed with my work, and my marriage, and myself, and I turned into someone who didn’t know what to hope for.
“The trick, it seems to me, is to stave off regret. That’s what the whole thing is about. And we can’t stave it off forever, because it’s impossible not to make the mistakes that let regret in, but the best of us manage to limp on into our sixties or seventies before we succumb.”
This seems to be her best answer: don’t think about it, don’t waste time regretting. Just try to forget your mistakes. It’s an answer that I think many people give: I don’t know if there’s anything we can do, so just try to distract ourselves and find happiness that way. Life is pretty bleak when the best chance at happiness you have is distraction.
Ultimately, David wearies of trying so hard to be good. Even DJ GoodNews has trouble being loving on a personal level. Katie decides not to divorce David, to protect their family as much as she can by simply staying. But she sees it as the loss of herself:
“I will sacrifice everything that I have come to think of as me for the sake of my marriage and family unity. Maybe that’s what marriage is anyhow, the death of the personality…I should have killed myself, as it were, years ago.”
The book ends just as dismally: the family is still together, but not much has changed.
I won’t start preaching, but it does make me sad that so many people view life and marriage this way. On one level, they’re right: You do have to sacrifice your own self for the sake of your husband or wife. It’s called becoming one. You two, together, are now bound in a way that makes you better than you were alone. You’re given the beautiful blessing of the opportunity to live out love 24/7 in a person’s life. Which is exhausting. But totally worth it.
And as far as trying to be good… the book ends without hope because, well, there is no hope in that life. Katie’s right. We will never be good. We are utterly, completely sinful. But her brother is wrong: there’s no way we could ever qualify for entry into Heaven on our own. Being a doctor or giving all your possessions to the poor or housing homeless kids will not get you into Heaven. There’s only one way. Jesus took our sins upon Himself. He took our punishment for us, so that our slate would be wiped clean. We really can start over. And then we live “good” lives out of thankfulness, not in an attempt to earn anything.
So, the book doesn’t exactly line up with my worldview. But I liked it because it was beautifully written and I was given a chance to reflect on my own feelings of guilt and the ways I still sometimes try to earn my way to Heaven—and it reminded me that I don’t have to. Praise Jesus.