Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Elizabeth Strout, Adrienne Brodeur, and More

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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Elizabeth Strout, Adrienne Brodeur, and More

Nick Hornby
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Books Read:

  • Oh William!—Elizabeth Strout
  • Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise—Scott Eyman
  • The Burgess Boys—Elizabeth Strout
  • Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret, and Me —Adrienne Brodeur 

Books Bought:

  • Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret, and Me—Adrienne Brodeur
  • The Burgess Boys—Elizabeth Strout
  • Sorrow and Bliss—Meg Mason
  • The Turning Point: 1851—A Year That Changed Dickens and the World—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
  • Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America—Marcia Chatelain 

Cary Grant fell in love with Sophia Loren during the filming of the 1957 movie The Pride and the Passion. Grant was married at the time, to Betsy Drake; Loren was in a relationship with the Italian film producer Carlo Ponti, who was also married. Grant told the writers of another movie he was intending to star in, Houseboat (based on a story by Betsy Drake), that he’d found the next Garbo, and that they should rewrite their script accordingly. Disregarding his own wife and Loren’s lover, Grant proposed to Loren, but she turned him down. He felt humiliated and angry. He was then appalled to discover that Loren had been cast in Houseboat, forgetting that this had been his request in the first place, and tried to walk out of the production, but his contract prevented him from doing so. He now hated Loren and didn’t want to be around her. However, once filming started, he forgot he hated her and proceeded to fall in love with her all over again, but he was still married, and she still had a lover, so the results were the same.

Cary Grant would have been a deeply irritating fictional character—exasperating, mercurial, self-involved, psychologically implausible, and with an entirely improbable backstory. An acrobat troupe! Tumbling! Yeah, right. The weird thing about Grant, though, is that he was a fictional character, in the sense that he made himself up: a working-class Bristolian kid called Archie Leach, who got himself to New York as part of the aforementioned acrobat troupe and then moved from musical theater into movies. He borrowed liberally from his characters until he became “himself”—suave, sophisticated, always impeccably dressed. (He was frequently referred to by ignorant American film industry types as a “Cockney,” by the way. He wasn’t one. Cockneys are born within the sound of Bow Bells, in East London, and Grant was born a hundred miles from there. You’re not a Cockney even if you’re born in Notting Hill or Brixton. But then what does it matter to you people? As far as you’re concerned, the whole of England is part of the set of My Fair Lady.)

 If you knew nothing at all about Grant, you might guess that there was some trauma somewhere that created his impeccable surface, a surface that seems to go all the way to his core, and you’d be right. Grant’s father had his mother committed to an asylum when he was eleven years old. He was told that she disappeared, then later that she was dead. Grant and his father moved in with his grandmother, but this seemed only to intensify the poverty that blighted the family, and Grant effectively ran away to join the circus when he was fifteen. He didn’t find out that his mother was alive, and would have been sufficiently sane to manage life outside an institution, until his Hollywood career was underway. 

Scott Eyman’s biography of Grant is an absorbing, nuanced account of an elaborately constructed person who could have existed only during the exact years he lived. There aren’t so many acrobat troupes these days, for a start, and it’s much harder for a man to decide that his wife belongs in an institution just because it is convenient for him. But there’s something about the way the world was back then, pre–World War II—when ideas of class were more rigid; secrets could remain hidden; aspiration was less complicated, and invariably involved champagne and good suits—that enabled the idea of Grant. And if you’re looking for “Was he gay?” gossip, I’m afraid this is not a salacious book, although it does properly examine the rumors, most of them centered around his bachelor housemate relationship with Randolph Scott. All one can say is that anyone who married five beautiful women, and who was temporarily destroyed by his failure with Sophia Loren, was not a gay man, although he might well have been attracted to both sexes. He never seemed to mind the gossip much. He took the view that women always wanted to find out for themselves, and their curiosity worked to his advantage.

One of the melancholy pleasures to be taken from Eyman’s book is its depiction of entertainment as a very straightforward business. Nobody wanted to make a movie that was unwatchably miserable, or excruciatingly slow, or repellently violent, and nobody wanted to watch one; there was either dumb fun (The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer—“most agreeable,” said The New York Times) or sophisticated fun (The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, North by Northwest, et cetera). Pre-Hollywood, it was even simpler. Some of the vaudeville acts unearthed by Eyman include “The Twelve Speed Maniacs,” which consisted of a dozen men who built a Model T in two minutes and drove it off the stage; “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman, who came onstage with a portable bar and a cocktail shaker and asked the audience what they wanted; and Al Lydell, “America’s Foremost Portrayer of Senility.” I don’t know about you, but I would pay any amount of money to watch any of these people tonight. I suppose these things go in cycles, and what goes around comes around. We’ll just have to wait until our hunger for pornography and art movies has been sated before we can buy tickets for a night with “Think-a-Drink.” At the moment, you can’t grab anyone’s attention unless there’s at least one genital mutilation.

 Elizabeth Strout’s characters are the complete opposite of Cary Grant, as real as Grant was a confection. Strout is beginning to put together a remarkable collection of books. (I guess the right way of saying “a collection of books” is “oeuvre,” but, you know, we don’t speak like that in these pages.) At the moment she seems to be writing two different sequences: there are two Olive Kitteridge books and three Lucy Barton books, if one includes the short-story collection Anything Is Possible, which is set in the town Lucy Barton grew up in. These books constitute five of the last six. The Kitteridge books are written in the third person—Strout must have realized pretty early on in her conception that Olive’s flinty, grouchy exterior is best observed from the outside—but My Name Is Lucy Barton and the latest, Oh William!, are narrated in the first person. Lucy’s quiet, sad wisdom, which occasionally breaks into the kind of despairing, puzzled fragments exemplified by the title, is just great, a literary marvel, and an object lesson in how to create character through voice.

 My Name Is Lucy Barton is set more or less entirely in a hospital ward. Lucy Barton, a writer with a scarred, impoverished background, is sick, and her mother comes to visit her, and they talk. Lucy is looking back on all this when she tells us the story, and toward the end of the book she says, “My mother was right; I had trouble in my marriage. And when my girls were nineteen and twenty years old, I left their father, and we have both remarried. There are days when I feel I love him more than I did when I was married to him, but that is an easy thing to think—we are free of each other, and yet not, and never will be.” That rich little confessional moment provides the substance of Oh William! 

 William, the husband Lucy left, has remarried twice since she was sick in the hospital, and his third wife, Estelle, leaves him during the first act of this new book. Lucy’s beloved second husband, meanwhile, has died, and she is still mourning him. So they are both single again. Shortly before his calamity, William is given a genealogy kit as a present, and discovers he has a half sister. (Genealogy kits are not yet fictional clichés, but anecdotally I have been told about so many unwelcome discoveries that I fear they may soon become so.) He and Lucy end up going on the road to look for this sister together. 

This may sound very high-concept for an Elizabeth Strout novel, but fear not: plot takes up very little of the space she allows herself. This painful book is about regret and incomprehension, grief and parenthood, the apparent impossibility of self-knowledge. It’s maybe the best of her wonderful books—or at least, it’s the one that cuts the deepest. Over the summer I read The Burgess Boys, which is also terrific, but it’s much closer to being a conventional novel: sharp; beautifully written, of course; elaborately plotted; its hardscrabble town and half-broken inhabitants reminiscent of Mare of Easttown. But the interesting thing about the Lucy Barton books is that her language is frequently artless. “So there was that as well,” she says at the end of a story, where Vonnegut might have said, “So it goes.” Another one begins, “But.” And there is the frequently uttered cry of “Oh, William.” It’s an extremely effective way of conveying the pain and confusion of a writer: Lucy Barton is so watchful and precise that you just know her books wouldn’t read like that. It is very rare that you read a writer at this stage of a career, nine books in, and end up knowing you will read everything she writes.

 The familial complications in Adrienne Brodeur’s extraordinary Wild Game are maddening, improbable, disastrous, ill-judged, and sometimes just plain badly constructed—all possible flaws in a novel, but dynamite in a memoir. Wild Game, I should add quickly, is a memoir. We don’t diss novels here at The Believer. When Brodeur was fourteen, her mother, Malabar, woke her up to tell her that she had just been kissed by Ben Souther. Ben was the best friend of her husband, Charles, Adrienne’s stepfather. Ben had a wife, too: Lily. The two couples were extremely close. Malabar was glamorous, a brilliant cook, gregarious; Ben was outdoorsy, hearty, a hunter-gatherer. Their spouses were both sick. Charles had suffered a series of strokes at the beginning of his marriage to Malabar that left him incapacitated; Lily was damaged and frail after her cancer treatment. If this were a novel, you’d end up thinking Brodeur had read too much D. H. Lawrence.

Adrienne (and perhaps we should think of the confused and vulnerable girl in the book as Adrienne and the perceptive author as Brodeur) was shocked, of course, but she quickly realized she was being asked to facilitate the adulterous relationship, to plot and hide and share in her mother’s excitement, and that was what she did, for years and years and years. She was invited to share fantasies about the honeymoon that Malabar and Ben would surely have; she helped cook up the stories that would explain absences; she lied to her stepfather when corroborating alibis. 

One of the themes of this book—or one of the things it makes you think about, anyway—is this: At what age do we become the person who must take responsibility for the mistakes we have made? I won’t own up to anything I did before the age of seventeen or eighteen, but round about that time it starts to become a little difficult. You do dumb stuff when you’re eighteen, and, yes, you are young, but you are also semi-recognizable to yourself. Adrienne was too young to understand the depths of the waters she was swimming in when she was asked to dive in, but she’s still in those waters when she’s at college. And she’s still waving—or drowning—when she marries Jack, Ben’s son, who has no idea about the affair when they get together, at which point, unsurprisingly, things start to unravel for nearly everyone. Brodeur is scrupulously fair and refuses to talk her way out of anything she might have been responsible for, but the truth is that she was injected with a microchip that night when she was fourteen, and there was nothing much she could do about it until she realized she had to tear it out of her own arm. Malabar and Ben go to Italy for their honeymoon, and Adrienne’s husband becomes her stepbrother. You won’t find a memoir as gripping as this one; each strange turn in the narrative makes you gasp at the madness and folly of people in love. And it’s right up there with Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments in its depiction of the intensity of the mother-daughter relationship and its ability to disfigure lives. I can think of ten women off the top of my head I’d want to give this book to.

It’s the end of the English summer. It rained, mostly. But these were the books that made the wet and the cold bearable. When the sun eventually did come out, and I found myself reading Elizabeth Strout on a sun lounger by a pond, the brightness and warmth seemed almost de trop. We have all learned something like that these last eighteen months: that the outside world doesn’t matter so much if we allow talented people to cast their light when we need it. 

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