THERE are many addictions that can beset us in modern life: work, food, exercise, sex, shopping, the Internet, video games. And, as we’re reminded in Elizabeth Hay’s witty new novel, there are the movies. In Garbo Laughs—a reference to the way Ninotchka, the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film starring the grim beauty herself, was advertised—Harriet Browning is a melancholic novelist, a wife and mother of two, a woman so preoccupied by old movies and old movie stars that it threatens to break up her family. No flesh-and-blood extramarital affair for the likes of angular, serious Harriet, who is told she bears a resemblance to Garbo. Rather, she pines endlessly for the world as it appears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Harriet’s long-suffering husband, Lew Gold, is a tall, bespectacled architect who ”could write a treatise on the effect of VCR’s on romance and marriage: 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—all this he could write about at length.”
Harriet does not engage in this obsession alone. Her children—geeky, endearing Kenny, age 10 (who likes to dress as a gangster à la Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls and ponders weighty matters like the best movie opening and ending), and glamour-besotted Jane, age 12—are her devoted partners-in-viewing, along with Harriet’s best friend, an earthy ex-journalist named Dinah Bloom. Every Friday night, they gather in Harriet and Lew’s Ottawa living room for screenings of chestnuts like Pal Joey. During the week, Harriet tends to her chronic insomnia by watching selected scenes from beloved flicks and writing unsent confessional letters to Pauline Kael, in which she muses on subjects like the most memorable lovers in the movies. (The book takes place in the late 1990’s, several years before Kael’s death.)
It isn’t a hankering for all movies but a love of old movies, with their long-dead stars, figures whose lives were at least partly shrouded in mystery, that gives Harriet’s life meaning. Although she is only 47, her taste in actors runs to Cary Grant and Sean Connery. Not for her Russell Crowe and Hugh Grant, with their messy dalliances and sputtering talk show appearances. Harriet doesn’t just live in the movies, she lives in the past: ”Sometimes she joked that she was another Miss Havisham. The clock had stopped when Cary Grant died.”
Then, one day, into Harriet’s sleepy, film-fixated life comes a letter informing her that her pathologically manipulative Aunt Leah is moving back to Ottawa and needs a place to stay. Leah is much more than a fellow cinéaste; she was married to a once-successful screenwriter, Lionel Frame, a friend of the Hollywood Ten. Ominously, Leah has decided that Harriet is going to help her write a memoir about her marriage. To make matters worse, the less-than-prolific Harriet has already produced a roman à clef about Aunt Leah: ”She had written the story to free herself of Leah, but, instead, she had given her aunt an extra indelible life, a sort of amplified existence, from which she could not escape.”
The strength of Hay’s second novel—the first, A Student of Weather, was a finalist for Canada’s Giller Prize—comes from the author’s fresh observations on the ebb and flow of love, the vagaries of female friendship, the power of the changing seasons (a good chunk of the book takes place during the historic ice storm of 1998) and the realities of the writer’s life. When Bill Bender, a cranky, erudite neighbor who is a retired newspaperman, learns that Harriet is a novelist, he says: ”Journalists write less than they know and novelists write more. . . . A journalist will know the premier has a mistress kept in a hotel at government expense while his battered wife regularly visits the emergency ward, and not write about it. A novelist will not only write about it but come to sweeping conclusions about the nature of man.”
Originally published in The New York Times on November 16, 2003.