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'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby recreates 1960s London with warmth and generosity

Hornby travels to the 1960s with a novel that explores the purpose of popular entertainment.

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Funny Girl
By Nick Hornby
Penguin Publishing Group
464 pp.

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Barbara is built like a beauty queen, with blonde good looks her roommate announces she would cheerfully kill her for. (She announces it so often that Barbara is actually a little concerned for her safety.)

But the high school graduate has no use for a tiara and sash. Instead, she craves a banana peel and a rubber chicken in Nick Hornby’s ode to the 1960s, Funny Girl.

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“Barbara knew she didn’t want to be queen for a day, or even for a year,” Hornby writes after Barbara wins a beauty contest in Blackpool that her aunt and father thought would satisfy her desire for a bigger life. “Queens were never funny, not the ones in Blackpool anyway, or the ones in Buckingham Palace either.”

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Barbara worships Lucille Ball, dissecting and memorizing every episode of “I Love Lucy,” although sadly, we never hear whether her favorite episode is “Vitameatavegimen,” the one where Lucy takes up wine-making, or the one where she gets a job in the chocolate factory.

“The world seemed to stand still for half an hour every Sunday, and her father knew better than to try and talk to her or even rustle the paper while the program was on, in case she missed something,” Hornby writes. “It was, she sometimes felt, a bit like being religious.”

So Barbara lights out for London, where life as a shopgirl in a shared flat feels further away from Hollywood than even Blackpool. After a half-hearted effort at finding a sugar daddy (on the advice of her roommate) goes awry, Barbara lands an agent, the mostly benevolent Brian.

He is baffled by his newest client’s desire to make people laugh when she can just stand there and have people throw money at her. Brian tells her it will be years before she needs to worry about being funny. “Decades, probably. Look at you!”

Now renamed Sophie Straw, Barbara’s first audition is authentically disastrous, with a stage director telling her, “[I]f I cast you, it would show that I’d given up, d’you see?”

But then she gets a chance at a “rotten” script called, “Wedded Bliss?” (The punctuation mark becomes a running gag.)

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“It was even worse than Brian had made it sound, but when she was back at doing the washing-up, probably in a couple of months’ time, she’d be able to tell her father that she’d met the writers of ‘The Awkward Squad.’ It would be the only memory of London worth keeping.”

The writers and producer are under no illusions about the quality of their latest effort. When Barbara comes in with her bombshell looks, northern accent, and comedic timing, they rewrite everything around her and “Barbara (and Jim)” – newly renamed to the enduring consternation of the leading man – becomes a runaway hit.

Hornby, author of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” for the first time does some time-traveling in one of his novels, recreating London on the verge of immense social change.

Barbara, while appealing, isn’t the most interesting character in the novel. That honor goes to the two writers, Bill Gardiner and Tony Holmes, who meet in 1959 at an Aldershot police station when they are arrested for “importuning in a men’s lavatory.”

The two embody an ongoing debate about the role of popular entertainment and the responsibilities of those who create it. Tony wants a quiet life and to be able to keep writing, while Bill is determined to be taken seriously as an artist.

“Why doesn’t he hate anything we write?” Bill wonders about their boss.

“Is that what you’d prefer? That our boss hated what we do?” Tony asks.

“Yes,” said Bill. “Of course.”

While Tony is delighted to be paid to make millions of people laugh, Bill believes that true art must challenge and anger. As Hornby has made clear in both speeches and his own writing, he’s pretty firmly in Tony’s camp, but he lets the tortured artiste get in a few shots of his own.

“You want to be respectable,” Bill accuses Tony, who really doesn’t see this as a criticism.

Meanwhile, as the ratings of “Barbara (and Jim)” go up, “Bill, in a spirit of desperation, began to take his novel seriously.”

Using a clown shoe to hammer home his point, Hornby also includes an actual debate about the purpose of entertainment, having the TV show’s diffident producer, Dennis, take down a pompous professor on camera in possibly the funniest scene in the novel.

For a novel about a groundbreaking sitcom, “Funny Girl” is sadly short on snort-milk-out-your-nose moments. But it does offer plenty of Hornby’s warmth and generosity of spirit. And he does an excellent job of recreating the vibe of 1960s London, down to the unlikely details such as having a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page record the TV show’s theme song.

The title of “Funny Girl” might be a bit of a misnomer, since Barbara always seems more ingénue than comedienne. But the novel fits squarely in Hornby’s tradition of offering quality entertainment that respects readers’ intelligence without making novels feel like homework. Consider it comfort food, prepared by a master.