Elizabeth Hay’s second novel, Garbo Laughs, is a movie fanatic’s dream. But I may be biased. I am a self-confessed movie junkie and insanely passionate about books. Hay serves up mountains of film and literary references that kept me riveted page after page. Her skillful use of movie references enable the reader to visualize the same film scenes that the characters who inhabit the story do, and as your neighbor down the street will do when they dive into this splendid novel. This could be the world’s first interactive novel successfully tapping into our collective film consciousness. Think Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo meets Dorothy Parker as channeled by John Irving.
Set in contemporary Ottawa, the story follows two years in the life of the Browning family as told by Harriet, wife, mother and writer who sees reality through a celluloid filter. Her children, Jane and Kenny, have been weaned on classic films; they speak in snippets of film dialogue and movie trivia. At the age of three, Jane saw Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot and said “I am her.” Kenny is fixated on Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls. Her husband, Lew, copes with his wife’s screen infidelity by retreating to another room on movie nights. Dinah Bloom, a retired journalist, whose witty banter is reminiscent of Dorothy Parker, wins Harriet’s friendship by telling her she reminds her of Greta Garbo—it’s the eyelashes.
Harriet journalizes her trials and tribulations in the form of unsent letters to film critic Pauline Kael. Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies is referred to as “the Bible” in the Browning family. Every page of this novel gently pulls you into Harriet’s movie-saturated world. An example of Harriet’s self-analysis: “I’ve seen a thousand movies…but I’m still no good at love.” Harriet looks to the couples on the silver screen to gauge her love life, rejecting both her husband and Jack Frame, a burly man from her past, neither of whom resembles the Hollywood actor she most adores: Cary Grant. Sadly, Harriet does not realize that Lew embodies all of Grant’s charm, sensitivity, and romance—but all the women in the neighbourhood (even wicked Aunt Leah) recognize that Lew is a great catch. Harriet is not totally blinded by celluloid; she does figure out that her feelings of anger toward Jack mimic Audrey Hepburn’s feelings of love for George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
A pleasant read, Garbo Laughs‘ pages brim with film clips, witty dialogue and Hollywood gossip that washes over you and glazes your brain until you are a member of Harriet’s cult. Hay bathes you in the soft light of flickering images on a screen and then jars you awake with stabs of painful reality. Harriet deals with her own mortality by taking comfort in knowing that she will meet Pauline Kael in heaven, and together they shall go to meet Cary Grant.
This novel is populated with sweet, dysfunctional people of all ages dealing with romance, life and death in their own unique ways. Hay has mastered foreshadowing and taken it to the next level. Wicked Aunt Leah is talked about early on and hints are dropped about her personality. When she finally makes her appearance, we are not disappointed—think Lady Catherine deBurgh of Pride and Prejudice fame. Elizabeth Hay is a sinfully good writer to watch out for. Garbo Laughs rates five stars. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go down to the video store.
Originally published on the Curled Up With a Good Book book review site.