is a 2014 novel by Nick Hornby, set in 1960s England. Combining a light comic style that closely matches the television comedy writing of the era with Hornby’s signature obsession with pop culture, the novel traces the professional and personal trajectory of Barbara Parker, calling herself Sophie Straw, who dreams of being a television star like her hero Lucille Ball.
Barbara Parker, a beautiful blond girl, wins the Miss Blackpool pageant. Despite her triumph, Barbara sees the Mayor and his wife—a former winner of the pageant—and Barbara has a vision of her own life following a similar trajectory, valued only for her appearance. The vision is horrifying, and so Barbara, deciding to give up her career in pageants, leaves her father for London.
In London, Barbara is not an instant success. She takes a job working at a department store selling cosmetics and finds a roommate, Marjorie, in a run-down apartment in a sketchy part of town. Barbara, depressed at her lack of success, becomes infuriated when Marjorie suggests she finds a boyfriend to buy her things and take her places. After a few more depressing nights, however, Barbara gives in to Marjorie’s idea, agreeing to go on a date with an older man, Valentine Laws. The date is a disaster; Valentine is not a nice man, and his wife shows up in the middle of dinner and makes a scene.
Fleeing, Barbara knocks down a man. He introduces himself as Brian Debenham, a talent agent. He thinks there is potential in Barbara and offers to represent her as a model. Barbara doesn’t want to be a model, however, and says no, so Brian agrees to try to find her acting work. He suggests she changes her name, so she becomes Sophie Straw.
Brian sends Sophie on a series of terrible auditions for parts she knows she’s not right for. However, she has no other options and so does her best at each one. Brian sends her to audition for a comedy, which she has no experience or training for, but she is a natural and the audition goes very well. The writers of the show, Tony and Bill, are two gay men who have been away from the business after being charged with homosexuality, still a crime at the time. They have been forced to create a show about a traditional heterosexual marriage. Finding inspiration and good suggestions from Sophie, they are delighted to cast her.
Sophie meets her co-star, Clive Richardson, and her director, Dennis, and his wife, Edith, as the show is put together. Edith is very cold, and Sophie quickly learns she is cheating on Dennis. Just as the first episode is about to begin filming, Sophie learns that her father has suffered a heart attack. She chooses to stay and finish filming before going back to Blackpool.
When the show airs, it is an instant hit, but Clive is horrified to realize that he is a supporting character, and Sophie is the star. He threatens to quit the show and has to be talked into staying through the end of the first season. Sophie does her first interview as a rising star and meets Diane. The two hit it off immediately and become best friends. Tony is pressured into adopting a more heterosexual lifestyle to appease nervous sponsors, and so he marries a woman named June, much to Bill’s horror.
Sophie and Clive have great chemistry and begin a romantic relationship, which the press eats up. Sophie knows that Clive will likely never be a faithful partner, and contemplating whether she can tolerate that, decides that perhaps she can. In the second season of the show, a scene depicts two women who were once famous actresses, now old and obscure; Sophie thinks that one day she will be them. Her father and her family visit, and Sophie is embarrassed by them and their crude manners. She meets a comedic magician named Maurice and thinks about dating him, but soon realizes he isn’t an upgrade from Clive. She realizes she has romantic feelings for Dennis, now divorced, who has become one of her best friends.
June announces that she is pregnant, and everyone—including Tony—is surprised to learn that he now thinks of his prior homosexual lifestyle as a phase; he commits to being June’s husband and a father to their child. Upset, Bill begins writing a novel about growing up gay as a way of expressing his feelings.
The show is a continuing success. A new character is brought onto the show, Nancy, who will play a woman Clive’s character has an affair with. This happens in real life, as well, and Sophie breaks up with Clive. Sophie’s mother suddenly shows up after having run away when Sophie was two years old. Sophie, initially angry, soon realizes that her mother was dealing with the same feelings of repression and unhappiness as she was.
The show is ending, and a new show starring Sophie is developed, but with little enthusiasm. Dennis finally asks Sophie out, and they begin to date. The new show fails, and Sophie learns she is pregnant. Her agent suggests she gets an abortion to preserve her career, but Sophie rejects this idea and leaves London with Dennis; they get married.
Twenty years later, Sophie reunites with the cast and crew for a special reunion show. She realizes that only she and Dennis—and Tony and June—seem happy and fulfilled; everyone else is putting on a show but is miserable inside. As filming commences, Sophie realizes that she misses working, but has no regrets.