Garbo Laughs

by Elizabeth Hay

Published by McClelland & Stewart

374 pages, 2003




Cocoa Soothes

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


There are books that are easy to review: the rave-inspiring masterpiece, the delectable comedy, the gripping thriller, or even the literary turkey that misses the mark by a mile. And then there is a book like Garbo Laughs. It's garnering glowing reviews and climbing bestseller lists all over Canada, to the point that I felt compelled to get my hands on it, my expectations soaring.

And I didn't hate it. Far from it. It's a cozy, eccentric little book, virtually plotless, full of unusual and well-wrought metaphors, and peopled with characters that are real enough to stick.

It should be enough that a novel be good. Every book doesn't have to be earthshakingly great. But I still puzzle over Garbo Laughs' huge success. It meanders, it even maunders and mopes, and sometimes gets bogged down in detail that is as tedious as everyday life itself.

Too realistic? Perhaps. Most novelists realize that daily life doesn't play well on the page. As in the movies, it needs some serious tweaking to make the story come alive.

Ah, the movies. Now we come to it, the book's emotional core. Harriet Browning was deprived of movies in her prim and somewhat grim childhood. In mid-life she seems to need them to sustain a sense of wholeness. This is a woman who seems to spend her every waking hour watching videos of Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich and Marlon Brando, and even writing long letters (which she never sends) to legendary movie critic Pauline Kael.

She's aware on some level that her ruling passion isn't quite healthy, and that she may be shortchanging herself: "Is this why she liked movies so much? Because she wasn't in the picture?" In fact, she has come to think of herself as "a woman so saturated with old movies, seen repeatedly and swallowed whole, that she no longer fits into this world."

It's doubtful that Harriet, a less-than-best-selling writer, has ever truly fit into the world. Her husband Lew, an amiable architect with an affectionate tolerance for Harriet's foibles, describes her as "she of the mournful countenance," his "northern-eyed, meatless-on-principle, strangely yearning wife."

Harriet's young son Kenny shares her passion for movies in a way that seems a little unnatural. Teenage daughter Jane is so seldom part of the story that she seems like a shadow on the wall.

Harriet makes friends with a fiftyish reporter named Dinah: "Usually with people you were in one element and they were in another. You were a fish mouthing words to fowl. But Dinah was a fish too. They swam along comfortably, side by side." Dinah happily joins Harriet's informal movie club and becomes as close as family. Later on Harriet endures a long visit from her carping Aunt Leah and her obnoxious middle-aged stepson Jack.

And that's it. There are no major plot developments, merely episodes. Dinah, a lifelong smoker, has a bout with lung cancer, and Harriet even experiences her own scare. Attractions happen. Dinah and Lew become fascinated with each other (though there is no sex: God knows I looked for it), and Harriet experiences a strange, undeveloped "thing" for the annoying Jack that never really goes anywhere.

In other words, it's just like life, its progress halting and uneven, emotions coming up in an unruly fashion, and most insight blinkered by the endless daily round. But what makes the novel worth the sometimes less-than-enthralling ride is some truly wonderful writing.

The uneventful events of Garbo Laughs take place against the backdrop of the massive late-1990s ice storm in eastern Canada. The post-storm scenario in Harriet's Ottawa glistens with beauty: "a trail so littered with fallen ice that walking on it was like treading on broken chandeliers," "a handsome day of white-toothed snow and whiskery trees".

Elizabeth Hay has a talent for exploring all the little elbows of personality that make people individual. Aunt Leah is an acerbic old woman with a decided edge; she tells Harriet, "You should be taking notes for a novel. You might win a prize and get somewhere." Though she's hardly lovable, somehow it's hard to hate her, for reasons that are not easy to analyze. This means that Hay has created a character with more subtlety than meets the eye.

And then, of course, there are the movies. Their gut-pulling drama provides the emotional charge Harriet's life lacks. In particular she's enthralled with Greta Garbo, that cinematic enigma, "the woman who had everything and threw it away with both hands. But that's why she was so interesting."

This description suits Harriet just as well, as she slides around uncomfortably within an essentially solid marriage, refusing to let life's many pleasures distract her from a fundamental deep melancholy. Her talent for unhappiness can be downright frustrating, and a few times I wanted to say to her, "For heaven's sake, you're married to a wonderful man who adores you and accepts you for who you are. Don't you see what's happening with Dinah? Do something!"

Eventually she comes to see Lew as "the baking soda that cancelled out the sour soup, the ointment on chapped hands, the good coat she counted on, the quiet man who never snored." Douglas Fairbanks Jr. he ain't, but he'll do.

No one in this novel experiences an epiphany, but most of them (with the exception of a minor character who is killed by a falling tree) manage to get through in a way which is, if not exciting, then admirable. In this we see the ordinary courage which is part and parcel of being human. Not all novels need to be champagne. Garbo Laughs is a nice steaming cup of cocoa, not exactly intoxicating but delicious, warm and comforting nonetheless. | November 2003


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.