Art and life are intertwined in a novel about TV sitcoms set during the cultural sea change of the 1960s.
Hornby's (Juliet, Naked, 2009, etc.) most ambitious novel to date extends his passion for pop culture and empathy for flawed characters in to the world of television comedy. From her girlhood days in working-class Blackpool, Barbara Parker idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of emulating her. Yet such a career seems impossible to a young woman whose closest brush with upward mobility comes when she wins a local beauty contest—then quickly abdicates her crown, realizing it would tie her closer to home rather than provide a ticket out. She realizes she has to go to London, a city where she has no connections or realistic prospects and where she discovers “that she wasn’t as lovely as she had been in Blackpool; or, rather, her beauty was much less remarkable here." There's one thing that makes her stand out from the other lovely girls, though: "She was pretty sure...that none of [them] wanted to make people laugh.” Through a series of chance encounters that seem like destiny, she does achieve her dreams, getting cast on a popular BBC comedy and even meeting Lucy, who “looked old, though, in the way that a ghost looks old.” It’s the supporting characters who really enrich this novel—the producer/director whose devotion to his star is more than professional; the gay writers who are initially semicloseted and whose paths will diverge; the male star whom this newcomer—now dubbed Sophie Straw—quickly eclipses. Hornby makes the reader care for his characters as much as he does and retains a light touch with the deeper social implications, as women, gays, popular entertainment and the culture in general experience social upheaval.
Years later, Sophie is getting ready to star in a play that's intended to revive her career. “The play is much better than I thought it was going to be," she thinks. "It’s funny, and sad—like life.” And like this novel.