Excerpt from How To Be Good by Nick Hornby, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How To Be Good

By Nick Hornby

How To Be Good
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2001,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: Apr 2002,
    320 pages.

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So. I doze on the sofa, and then Tom comes down in his pajamas, puts the TV on, gets a bowl of cereal together, sits down on an armchair, and watches cartoons. He doesn't look at me, doesn't say anything.

"Good morning," I say cheerily.

"Hi."

"How are you?"

"All right."

"How was school yesterday?"

But he's gone now; the curtains have been drawn over the two-minute window of conversational opportunity that my son offers in the morning. I get up off the sofa and put the kettle on. Molly's next down, already dressed in her school clothes. She stares at me.

"You said you were going away."

"I came back. Missed you too much."

"We didn't miss you. Did we, Tom?"

No answer from Tom. These, apparently, are my choices: naked aggression from my daughter, silent indifference from my son. Except, of course, this is pure self-pity, and they are neither aggressive nor indifferent, simply children, and they -haven't suddenly developed an adult's intuition overnight, even over this particular night.

Last, but not least, comes David, in his customary T shirt and boxer shorts. He goes to put the kettle on, looks momentarily confused when he realizes that it is on already, and only then casts a bleary eye over the household to see if he can find any explanation for this unexpected kettle activity. He finds it sprawled on the sofa.

"What are you doing here?"

"I just came to check up on your parenting skills when I'm not around. I'm impressed. You're last up, the kids get their own breakfast, the telly's on . . ."

I'm being unfair, of course, because this is how life works whether I'm here or not, but there's no point in waiting for his assault: I'm a firm believer in preemptive retaliation.

"So," he says. "This two-day course finished a day early. What, you all talked crap at twice the normal speed?"

"I wasn't in the mood."

"No, I can imagine. What sort of mood are you in?"

"Shall we talk later? When the kids have gone to school?"

"Oh, yeah, right. Later." This last word is spat out, with profound but actually mystifying bitterness -- as if I were famous for doing things "later," as if every single problem we have is caused by my obsession with putting things off. I laugh at him, which does little to ease tensions.

"What?"

"What's wrong with suggesting that we talk about things later?"

"Pathetic," he says, but offers no clue as to why. Of course, it's tempting to do things his way and talk about my desire for a divorce in front of our two children, but one of us has to think like an adult, if only temporarily, so I shake my head and pick up my bag. I want to go upstairs and sleep.

"Have a good day, kids."

David stares at me. "Where are you going?"

"I'm whacked."

"I thought that one of the problems with our division of labor is that you -couldn't ever drop the kids off at school. I thought you were being denied a basic maternal right."

I have to be at the surgery before the kids leave in the mornings, so I am spared the school run. And even though I am grateful for this, my gratitude has not prevented me from bemoaning my lot whenever we have arguments about who doesn't do what. And David, needless to say, knows that I have no genuine desire to take the kids to school, which is why he is taking such delight in reminding me of my previous complaints now. David, like me, is highly skilled in the art of marital warfare, and for a moment I can step outside myself and admire his vicious quick-wittedness. Well played, David.

"I've been up half the night."

"Never mind. They'd love it."

Bastard.

I've thought about divorce before, of course. Who hasn't? I had fantasies about being a divorcée, even before I was married. In my fantasy I was a good, great, single professional mother, who had fantastic relations with her ex -- joint attendance at parents' evenings, wistful evenings going through old photograph albums, that sort of thing -- and a series of flings with bohemian younger or older men (see Kris Kristofferson,Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, my favorite film when I was seventeen). I can recall having this fantasy the night before I married David, which I suppose should have told me something but didn't. I think I was troubled by the lack of quirks and kinks in my autobiography: I grew up in leafy suburbia (Richmond), my parents were and still are happily married, I was a prefect at school, I passed my exams, I went to college, I got a good job, I met a nice man, I got engaged to him. The only room I could see for the kind of sophisticated metropolitan variation I craved was postmarriage, so that was where I concentrated my mental energy.

Reprinted from How to be Good by Nick Hornby by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2001 by Nick Hornby. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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