Working with a novel - How to Be Good (Nick Hornby)

halo Getting started

The novel is entitled How to Be Good so it appears it might be about being good in life. So how can we be good? If we simply asked you to start out by listing ways in which you could be good, it is likely that your list would soon become a mishmash of ideas.

So perhaps it is a good idea to systematize by dividing your list of ideas according to various categories in your life.

For example:

  • home
  • school
  • work
  • leisure time

Perhaps there are more personal categories as well:

  • love
  • possessions
  • relationships
  • views on life

First decide on a set of categories you think are important and then break into groups of four and list ways that you could “be good” or better under each category.

For example: If one of your categories is love, some of the key words for how to be good might be: honesty, loyalty, giving, gifts, calling to say I love you, sending flowers and so on. Just how melodramatic you want to be is up to you.
When you have made your lists, discuss them in class, and then each student writes a description of the ideal “good” person.
You might start, for example, with
He is loyal to his friends
She is loyal to her friends 



support friend

Read Chapters 1 and 2 and then stop to consider and answer these questions

  1. How do you think the novel will develop from here? Is this going to be about divorce, sharing the kids, arguing through lawyers, finding new paths in life? Is it going to be about family and work? Where do you think the author wants to lead us?
  2. What do you make of Katie so far? Write a brief character analysis of her up to this point.
  3. Write a brief character analysis of David.
  4. Does it look like Katie’s relationship with her lover will last?


Now read the rest of the novel before working further.



This is a novel of ideas. The characters and what action there is are vehicles for presenting, reflecting on and developing the ideas presented in the novel.

  1. What do you think the main ideas and message of the book are?
  2. Did the author manage to hold your attention and succeed in getting you to think about the main ideas in the book?
  3. Go back to your first exercise and your list of how to be good. How many of the ideas in your list are also important topics in the novel?
  4. You also wrote a description of the “ideal” good person. Does your description fit any of the characters in the book? Why or why not?



  1. How believable are the characters? Do you feel you know them very well?
  2. How do we learn about the characters? Is it through description in the narrative, through their actions, thoughts, reactions? Is it through the way others react to them?
  3. A round character develops, while flat characters often are present to depict one type or one idea. Look back at your descriptions of the two main characters; have they changed much from what you learned about them in the first two chapters?
  4. Are other main characters in the novel round or flat? Look at: GoodNews, Molly, Tom, Becca, Stephen, Mark.


Discussing statements

Below is a list of statements about some of the main characters in the book. Discuss in groups whether you think each statement is true or false and discuss what your conclusions suggest about the characters.

  1. Katie is a doctor who cares about Third World debt and the homeless.
  2. Katie provides most of the financial support for David and their two children and sees nothing wrong with this.
  3. Katie likes the new version of her husband David.
  4. Katie is pleased that David wants to reintroduce "communication" and "intensity" to their sex life. 
  5. Stephen is even more self-absorbed than her husband.
  6. Katie Carr is a good person.
  7. The new David is just being politically correct.
  8. The new David is a great improvement on the old one.
  9. Tom and Molly appear to be just a little too bright and accepting of the new situation in their life.
  10. DJ GoodNews is a dreadlocked fake faith-healer.
  11. Katie says that the new David reminds her of Barbie's Ken because he has that rugged look.



Write a brief plot summary of the novel and the most important events. Work in pairs and read each other’s summary. Where do you differ? What do you feel you should have included, and where do you feel you say too much?


Setting and point of view

  1. How important is setting in this book? How well do we know the neighbourhood?
  2. The town is called Holloway which the author refers to as a liberal-minded neighbourhood. What is implied when we say “liberal-minded”?
  3. Point of view is an important part of telling a story. In this novel the point of view is first-person, provided by Katie. The benefit of the first-person point of view is that it brings us closer to the story (called immediacy). One of the disadvantages is that we are restricted to only seeing from this one person’s perspective. Can we trust Katie as our narrator? Give reasons for your answer.
  4. Write a short text where you tell the story from the point of view of one of the other characters: David, GoodNews, Tom or Molly. Read your text to the rest of the class and discuss how you think the perspective and the story changes. 


Discussion topics

For class or group discussion: choose some of the topic suggestions below.

Married life

  1. The main characters in this novel are 20+ years down the road you are about to travel, and things are not going that well for them. What expectations do you have for your life? What are your views on marriage, family and the “comfortable life” in general? What do you hope your life will be like in twenty years or so?
  2. What future do you predict for David and Katie’s marriage?


David Grant’s new found “goodness” can be defined by stages. The stages can be labelled as follows.  

  • Give aways
  • Spare bedrooms
  • Reversal
  • Writing a book

Explain what is meant by each and give examples of what David does and assess the level of success of each (in the case of the last one, discuss how successful you think the book will be). Would you be willing to give some of your things away, give up room to a homeless person or try “reversal”? Give reasons for your answer.


About who we are

  1. Is it right to ask why some people get to live in beautiful houses with DVD players and unused spare rooms while others lie starving in the streets? Should we be expected to care about everyone else, and about people who are not as successful in life as we are?
  2. Does being good mean being boring?
  3. The author has said about the book: "It's about a woman whose husband has a spiritual conversion that drives her nuts." Is Katie a bad person because she goes “nuts”? Should she unconditionally welcome David’s efforts?


Essay questions

Write an analytical essay on one of the topics below.

  1. In what ways are the notions of what it means to be “good” explored in this novel?
  2. Discuss the role of "goodness" in the relationship between Katie and David. Do you think one of them is more “good” then the other?
  3. Discuss GoodNews’s statement that the "possessions game" is something that makes people "lazy and spoiled and uncaring".
  4. Is Katie’s desire for an opportunity to "rebuild myself from scratch" realistic?
  5. In what ways is it significant that the person in this novel with the most doubts about being good is a woman and mother?
  6. Why does the act of reading and listening to music become a matter of spiritual survival for Katie? She states, “Can I be a good person and spend that much money on overpriced consumer goods? I don't know. But I do know this: I'd be no good without them.” What does she mean by this?