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

Literature I have Engaged In:

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

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Purchases of Books:

Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret, and Me

Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Turning Point: 1851 –A Year That Changed Dickens and the World

Marcia Chatelain’s Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America

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During the making of The Pride and the Passion, Cary Grant fell for Sophia Loren, even though he was married to Betsy Drake and she was in a relationship with Carlo Ponti.

He declared she was the next Garbo and suggested she be cast in Houseboat (a story by his wife), and then proposed to her, only to be declined.

Grant was enraged and, after finding out she was cast in the movie anyhow, attempted to quit the production, but was unable to due to his contract.

Instead, he resumed his animosity towards her, but during filming, he fell in love with her again. Unfortunately, since he was still married and she had a partner, nothing could be done.

The make-believe character of Cary Grant would have been highly irritating–infuriating, fickle, egotistical, psychologically doubtful, with an extremely unlikely past.

An acrobat team! Tumbling! Yeah, sure. Nevertheless, the strange thing about Grant is that he was a fictitious character in the sense that he made himself up: an ordinary Bristolian boy, called Archie Leach, who got to New York with the previously mentioned acrobat team and then moved from musical theater to movies.

He liberally borrowed from his roles until he became “himself”–polished, urbane, always perfectly dressed. (He was consistently referred to by uninformed American film industry personnel as a “Cockney,” incidentally. He was not one.

Cockneys are born within the sound of Bow Bells, in East London, and Grant was born a hundred miles away.

You are not a Cockney even if you are born in Notting Hill or Brixton. But then what does it matter to you? As far as you are concerned, the whole of England is part of the setting of My Fair Lady.)

If you had no prior knowledge of Grant, you may assume that some kind of pain and suffering had caused him to put up an impeccable wall between himself and the world, and you would be correct.

His father had committed his mother to a mental hospital when he was just 11. He was told she had vanished and then later that she had died.

Grant and his dad moved in with his grandmother, which only made the already present financial struggles worse, so he ran away from home at the age of 15 and joined the circus.

He had no idea that his mother was alive and could have lived a normal life outside of the institution until his career in Hollywood got in motion.

In Scott Eyman’s biography of Grant, readers can appreciate a detailed perspective of a complex character that could have only existed in the specific era that he lived.

Traditional principles of class were still in place and secrets were more easily kept, and the notion of ascendance was usually connected to champagne and fancy suits.

As for any speculation of his sexuality, this is not an especially titillating book, although it does address the rumors of his domestic partnership with Randolph Scott.

It can be assumed that someone who married five beautiful women and was affected by his failed romance with Sophia Loren was not homosexual, yet may have had interests in both genders.

Grant didn’t seem to be concerned with the gossip; he believed that women were always eager to discover the truth, and his appeal was increased because of their curiosity.

Eyman’s book provides us with a great insight into the entertainment industry. People wanted to watch movies that were either light-hearted and fun (e.g. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) or sophisticated and witty (e.g. The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, North by Northwest, etc.).

Pre-Hollywood, the business was even simpler. Eyman mentions several vaudeville acts, such as “The Twelve Speed Maniacs” who built a Model T in two minutes and drove it off the stage, “Think-a-Drink” Hoffman who asked the audience what they wanted to drink, and Al Lydell, “America’s Foremost Portrayer of Senility”.

We would all pay money to see these acts today, but people are more interested in art movies and pornography. We will have to wait until this interest is exhausted before we can watch “Think-a-Drink” again.

The characters of Elizabeth Strout have nothing in common with Cary Grant’s, being much more realistic.

She is constructing an impressive body of work, comprised of two Olive Kitteridge books and three Lucy Barton books, if one includes the short-story collection Anything Is Possible.

The Kitteridge books are told from a third-person point of view, while the Lucy Barton books – My Name Is Lucy Barton and Oh William! – are narrated in the first person.

Lucy’s serene yet disappointing musings, exemplified by the title of the latest book, is an impressive achievement of characterization through voice.

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the majority of the story takes place in a medical facility. Lucy, a writer with a troubled past, is hospitalized and her mother pays her a visit.

She reflects on the events later and in the conclusion of the book, expresses, “My mother was right; I had my struggles in my marriage. I left my husband when my daughters were 19 and 20, and both of us have since been remarried.

There are days where I feel more fond of him now than when we were married, however, that is a thought that arises from not being connected to each other anymore, and the fact that we never will be.” This thought-provoking section of the book is the crux of Oh William!

At the start of the novel, William – whom Lucy had left – has been wed twice more since she was ill in hospital, and his third wife, Estelle, exits him in the opening act.

Sadly, Lucy’s beloved second husband has since passed away and she is still grieving. Hence, both of them are single once more. Not long before his misfortune, William is given a genealogy kit as a gift and uncovers that he has a half-sister.

(These kits are not yet a well-worn trope, but I have been told about numerous unwelcome discoveries that I fear could make them common soon enough.)

As a result, they wind up embarking on a journey together to look for this sister.

This novel may sound complex, but its plot is not the focus. It is a story of remorse, loss, parenting, and the difficulty of self-discovery.

It is arguably the best of Elizabeth Strout’s works and the one that cuts the deepest. I also read The Burgess Boys which was very good, but it is more of a conventional novel with its plot and characters being reminiscent of Mare of Easttown.

An interesting aspect of Lucy Barton’s books is that her language is often unembellished. For example, she may say “So there was that as well” instead of a more elaborate sentence, or even just “But”.

Additionally, there is a common refrain of “Oh, William” which is effective in conveying Lucy Barton’s pain and confusion. It is rare for a writer to have such a long career (nine books in) and still have a reader eager to read everything they publish.

In her memoir Wild Game, Adrienne Brodeur presents a complicated family dynamic that is full of maddening, improbable, disastrous, and ill-judged elements.

As a young teen, Brodeur’s mother, Malabar, woke her to tell her that she had just been kissed by Ben Souther, the close friend of her husband, Charles, who was Adrienne’s stepfather.

Ben and his wife Lily were both sick, with Charles having had a series of strokes and Lily having gone through cancer treatment. If this were a novel, The Believer would likely say that Brodeur had been reading too much D.H. Lawrence.

Adrienne, being the bewildered and unprotected girl in the book, was startled; however, she quickly understood that she was being asked to help with the illicit relationship, to concoct and conceal and be part of her mother’s joy.

This is what she did, for an extended period of time. She was asked to create dreams about the holiday that Malabar and Ben would have; she assisted in making up the accounts that would justify absences; she deceived her stepfather when giving assurances of guiltlessness.

This book makes one consider the age at which we become accountable for our misdeeds. It is hard to take ownership for what one has done before the age of eighteen, but at this age, one starts to become more aware of their actions.

Adrienne was too immature to understand the consequences of her decisions when she was asked to take the plunge, yet she is still in the same predicament when she goes to college.

This book follows her story as she marries Jack, the son of Ben, who is unaware of their prior relationship.

Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments is similar in its attempt to show the intensity of the mother-daughter bond, and how it can have a devastating effect on their lives. I can think of ten women I would love to give this book to.

The English summer had reached its conclusion, with rain being the prevailing weather condition. But these books made the dampness and chill tolerable.

When the sun eventually shone, and I was able to relax on a sun lounger by a pond while reading Elizabeth Strout, the brightness and heat seemed almost unnecessary.

Through the last eighteen months, we have come to understand that when gifted people offer their insight, the exterior world doesn’t matter as much.

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