Nick Hornby's last novel, "Juliet, Naked" (2009), felt like a culmination of a kind. Revolving around a reclusive rock star and the fans who will not let him rest, it was a callback to Hornby's early work — "Fever Pitch," a nonfiction account of his soccer fanhood, or his first novel, "High Fidelity," which takes place in a record shop. Hornby has explored similar fascinations in his criticism: "Songbook," a collection of essays about 31 iconic rock songs, or the column "Stuff I've Been Reading," which he has written for the Believer since 2003.
"I think it's still the thing that defines me," he acknowledged in a 2005 interview, although this, of course, suggests some complications of its own. "What I'm interested in now," he continued, "is the idea that anyone who persists and tries to become some kind of artist is emotionally immature. It seems to me that the big passage to adulthood is accepting that you're not special. As a kid, you think you are."
It's impossible to read "Funny Girl," the author's first novel in more than five years, and not think of such a line. Set, for the most part, during the 1960s, this is a departure for Hornby — the story of a young woman named Sophie Straw (née Barbara Parker), who after being named 1964's Miss Blackpool, decamps from the north of England for Swinging London, where she becomes a TV comedian.
Sophie is obsessed with Lucille Ball and wants to bring her sort of energy to British television, but initially that's a hard sell. "The way I remember it," her agent says, "Lucille Ball wasn't left with much choice. She was knocking on a bit, and nobody was giving her romantic leads anymore, so she had to start making funny faces. You've got years before we have to start thinking about that."
Hornby has written about other female protagonists: Annie in "Juliet, Naked," Katie Carr in "How to Be Good." There's something more expansive, though, in "Funny Girl," which is as sedate a work as he has produced. What I mean is that this is a book that takes the long view, that seeks to give us a broad sense of its characters' circumstances. In that regard, its 1960s setting serves a double purpose — first, to engage us in the energy of the era's burgeoning youth culture, and second, to remind us of the speed with which time eclipses all.
Sophie is an appropriate signifier: "Here was everything they wanted to bring to the screen," Hornby writes of the production team that discovers her, "in one neat and beautifully gift-wrapped package, handed to them by a ferocious and undiscovered talent who looked like a star. The class system, men and women and the relationships between them, snobbery, education, the North and the South, politics, the way that a new country seemed to be emerging from the dismal old one that they'd all grown up in."
The members of that team are the novel's other central players — Clive, the leading man who becomes Sophie's faithless fiancé; Dennis, the producer-director who loves her from a distance; the writers, Bill and Tony — one gay, the other married but (perhaps) closeted. It adds up to the portrait of a culture in transition, in which "[w]hat was once both pertinent and laudably impertinent became familiar and sometimes even a little polite."
"Funny Girl" is at its best in its evocation of these shifting sands of normalcy, the ever-expanding notion of what propriety will bear. By 1967, when their series, "Barbara (and Jim)," goes off the air after three seasons, the characters have moved from meeting with Prime Minister Harold Wilson at 10 Downing Street to fighting about how to maintain their edge.
Bill publishes a novel, "Diary of a Soho Boy," that if not graphic is explicit; "I don't have to write for grannies in bloody Melton Mowbray," he declares. The irony, of course, is that the joke is on him as well. "Bill knew that publishing was different," Hornby writes. "He had no idea that it was a virtually uninhabited country, like Australia."
Such a tension is hardly unique to Hornby's characters — a similar shift marks the career arc of the Beatles, from MBE to "Revolution," or, say, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. One of the nicest touches in the novel, in fact, is Hornby's use of real people as a kind of heightened set dressing, a source of verisimilitude. A young Jimmy Page, for instance, records the "Barbara (and Jim)" theme song, and Sophie is hit on by Keith Relf of the Yardbirds while on a date in a London club.
And yet, in the end, this cannot compensate for a flatness in the novel, a lack of full dimensionality. It's not that "Funny Girl" is unenjoyable; like much of Hornby's writing, it is funny and fast moving, perceptive and sharp. There is, however, no edge of consequence, no real sense of stakes.
The conflicts here — between Sophie and Clive, Bill and Tony, or, most movingly, Tony and his wife, June, as they sort out the amorphous nature of his sexuality — get resolved without a lot of tension, as if happiness, or at least reconciliation, were the inevitable outcome all along.
That's a lovely fantasy, and it mirrors what we want for these characters as well. At the same time, it is not enough. What Hornby is getting at is the fine line between ambition and dissatisfaction, the way the things we want can't help but lead to compromise.
This is true on both the professional and the personal level: from Bill, "a single man with an anarchic streak who found himself having to write about a nuclear family to make his living," to Sophie's mother, who ran off when her daughter was young only to wind up in the same dead-end existence she thought she'd left behind.
Of them all, this may be truest of Sophie. "She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time," Hornby writes. That's a vivid take on success and its requirements, but the disappointment is that Hornby never makes us feel its human cost.
Riverhead: 452 pp., $27.95