Also on my holiday I read It Had To Be You. I had very little idea what to expect, as I don’t read back-cover blurbs (they either tell you nothing or give away surprises), but as it was by David Nobbs, I knew it would be beautifully-written, with very compassionately-observed and sympathetic characters, and of course that it would be very funny. I was correct in all these assumptions.
It’s not the easiest subject for a humorous novel. Actually, I rather annoyed myself by using the phrase ‘humorous novel’, it sounds awfully limiting, as though simply being amusing is the sum total of the author’s ambition and worth. I’ll try again. It’s not the easiest subject for a novel. I think when David wrote Sex And Other Changes he may have come up with the idea for the novel thinking it would have comic potential - a husband and wife both have sex-change operations and end up together - only to find the subject to be much weightier and more serious than expected. The result being that he was forced to avoid easy laughs and had to really work to find the humour – but when the humour comes, it packs more of a punch.
Ever since then, he seems to have been making life deliberately difficult for himself by choosing subjects for his novels which are incredibly sad and serious, and yet finding the humour in those subjects. Bringing a lightness of touch to the darkest subject matter. It is the mixture of a gently comedic tone and serious subject that makes his work seem true to life and life-affirming.
Possible spoilers follow.
Enough speaking in general terms, what’s the book about? Well, it’s about a middle-aged man called James Hollinghurst and what happens to him in the week after his wife’s death in a road accident. It’s about the preparations for a funeral, with family and friends descending upon him, while James himself isn’t so much as coming to terms with grief as wondering when the grief is going to turn up. He’d been having an affair, you see, and during the course of the novel he suspects that his wife was having an affair too. And yet, as he discovers her various secrets, he falls in love with his wife all over again. It’s an odd kind of love story; a husband falling back into love with his wife after her death.
I found it very moving and loved the characters, particularly James’ Uncle Stanley, a man who has been living on his own for so long he now just says what he thinks, absolutely honest and utterly tactless. If I had to quibble, I’d say that the murder-mystery sub-plot felt superfluous and that the ‘twist’ reveal of the identity of his wife’s lover didn’t add a great deal either; for me, the story was powerful enough on its own terms not to require these devices.
Oh, and two more things. One, I wish that the dead wife didn’t have the same name as my wife. It’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence but I look forward to the day in the future where we can buy all novels on Kindles and customise the character names to avoid these sort of connotative distractions.
Secondly, after One Day by David Nicholls, I think the wife-dies-in-a-car-crash device should be given a rest for a while now. Particularly as I did the same thing in my Touched By An Angel novel (I flatter myself to be in such good company). I feel for my friend Robert who read both books in succession, it must have felt like overkill, wives being constantly killed in car crashes wherever he turned.