Elizabeth Hay


"Garbo Laughs"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 30, 2003)

"[My childhood] had been a kind of ice age from which the parental glacier had finally retreated, and then what a lot of work it had been to get anything to grow on the boulder-filled, back-breaking personality that remained."

Harriet Browning, a novelist with an obsession about old-time movies, lives with her husband Lew Gold and their two children, ten-year-old Kenny, who likes to dress as Frank Sinatra, complete with fedora, and twelve-year-old Jane, who fantasizes about the glamorous lives she sees depicted in films and about being a movie star herself. Lew, a "heritage architect," who has recently returned from a job in Havana, is far more pragmatic than the rest of the family, having very little interest in the movies, especially as an escape, and he is worried. "Sometimes, passing through the living room, he sees [Harriet] curled up on the sofa, bathed in the flickering blue light that makes her grow, irrevocably, away from him. Tropism . He remembers the word from school." He rues the effects of the VCR on romance and his marriage, because the VCR makes it possible to "bring the unattainable into your home, to watch it repeatedly, to fast-forward to the hot spots again and again, to press the zinger of romance until you were well and truly electrocuted."

Tall and serious, Harriet is often thought to resemble Greta Garbo, who, ironically, used the name "Harriet Brown" when she traveled incognito. Lew sees his wife as "a woman without a romantic bone in her body, until she [sits] down in front of a movie," and her friend Dinah draws a cryptic parallel when she remarks that when Garbo laughed, no sound came out. 'They had to dub in her laughter." Harriet herself often addresses her day-to-day concerns to her favorite film critic, Pauline Kael, writing unsent letters and using Pauline as a sounding board as she tries to work out issues in her own life, which she sees in terms of the films that make it more palatable. Deprived of movies as a child, Harriet now makes up for that lack, often watching videos during sleepless nights. She recognizes, however, that her kind and thoughtful husband has "issues," telling him at one point that they are like "Jack Sprat and his wife. You won't be sad, and I won't be cheerful."

Suddenly, the lives of the Gold-Browning family are thrown into an uproar. Harriet receives a letter from Leah, her father's sister, who was once married to Lionel Frame, a Hollywood figure, announcing that Leah and her stepson Jack Frame are coming to Ottawa to begin work on a book they will jointly write about Lionel. Since "even a calm letter from Leah was like a missive from Liza Minnelli," Harriet must prepare herself to cope with the arrivals. Harriet has included an unflattering story about Leah in one of her novels, and she is not anxious to spend a lot of time in Leah's company, especially since Harriet has questions about the source of some mysterious phone calls she's received and about the egg thrown at her window when the book was published. She is busy with the family (and her film-watching), and she is also teaching a course-ironically, in comedy writing, which she teaches very seriously.

Hay's style is energetic and fast-paced, and the novel is filled with lively but realistic dialogue. She makes Harriet and her family sound like real people with real personalities engaged in real problems, even as they try to avoid them by watching films, and she successfully avoids the pitfalls of being cute. Harriet's neighborhood is brought to life in all its humanity, and it becomes a microcosm of the real, outside world-her close friend Dinah battles cancer, an elderly woman longs for company, a quiet older man falls in love, and another man dies in an accident. Jack and Harriet begin to feel some attraction to each other, and, Leah can't wait to reveal, Lew and Dinah may be attracted. The movies offer a way to avoid dealing with the immediate complications, however, and they slow down time, even for Kenny, who retreats into movies as an escape from bullying at school

Just as she did in her earlier novel, A Student of Weather, Hay incorporates a great deal of nature imagery, using it to significant effect to enhance themes. Lew returns from Havana and brings Harriet a piece of fern from the Havana fern museum, a motif which repeats throughout the novel: Dinah's parents once owned a movie theater called the Fern, and Jack Frame has an album containing ferns and photos of movie stars collected by a great aunt, Hattie, Harriet's own nickname. A huge ice storm paralyzes Ottawa and splits thousands of trees, and a dead squirrel is the cause of some of Harriet's musings. Eventually, Harriet is forced to confront the workings of nature in her own life, a recognition significant enough to make her lose her taste for movies.

Themes of romance and reality, love and friendship, life and death, and the "wonderfulness of modest lives" are all revealed here within the context of one Ottawa neighborhood, illuminated by the movies that give excitement to the lives of some of the residents. As Harriet discovers, "Mortality touched her heart, this woman who didn't care for the weaknesses of men; the cinematic sufferings, yes, but not the real weaknesses. Life couldn't compete with the movies, but death could." Like the life cycle of nature and the change of seasons, this novel has beginnings and endings, and growth and change, all revealed within the unique context of old movies, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Frank Sinatra.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

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About the Author:

Elizabeth HayElizabeth Hay was born in Owen Sound, Ontario in 1951. She attended Victoria College, University of Toronto, but left after three years. She worked for CBC radio in Yellowknife, Winnipeg and Toronto, as a host, interviewer, and documentary maker, especially for "Sunday Morning." She travelled extensively and lived outside the country for eight years, before returning in 1992 to live in New York where she taught creative writing at New York University.

She published her first book at thirty-eight. Her second book of short stories, Small Change was shortlisted for the Canadian Governor General's Award for Fiction, the Trillium Award, and the Rogers Communication Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. She has won a National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Fiction and a Western Magazine Award, written two books of creative non-fiction, and her short stories have appeared in many Canadian magazines and anthologies. A Student of Weather was short-listed for the Giller Prize in Canada in 2000 and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

She lives in Ottawa with her two children.

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