Oh, man, when I fall into the CanLit tree, sometimes I manage to hit every branch on the way down. I say I like character-driven stories, but Garbo Laughs is a harsh reminder of how important plot is even when your character drives things. Because in this case, Elizabeth Hay’s characters aren’t driving the story, so much as sitting around while a narrative just kind of tumbles desultorily around them, tugging at them occasionally in vain attempts to get their attention. They steadfastly refuse to engage with it, however, so it eventually passes them by (but not before raining revengeful death upon some of them!).
As the title and cover copy promise, this book is inextricably tied up in “old” movies and Harriet’s love, bordering on obsession, for them. I don’t know enough about early cinema to understand all the allusions or the ins-and-outs of these conversations. I’m aware of the names Sinatra, Astaire, Kelly, Brando, etc. I’ve seen The Godfather (which I don’t actually consider an “old” movie). The oldest movie I’ve probably watched is the restored Metropolis, but that doesn’t really intersect with American cinema. I don’t know what the oldest American movie I’ve watched is—maybe Casablanca. Anyway, while I don’t share Harriet’s fascination, I do understand her passion. Thanks to the way Hay describes it, I can liken it to my own love for books. Where Harriet loves snuggling up with an old movie, I love snuggling up with an old book. There is nothing like it and nothing better.
Surrounding Harriet are a panoply of characters who together might form an ensemble cast, if this book needed a cast. What it really needs is more conflict than the nebulous antipathy between Harriet and Leah or Harriet’s own internal struggle with her inability to write comedy. Hay even throws in the spectre of a possible affair, whether it’s Harriet’s unwanted attraction to Jack or Lew’s easygoing friendship with Dinah. These are strong beginnings, great characters. But Hay doesn’t give them quite enough leeway, doesn’t spool out quite enough leash, and so their conflicts don’t actually go anywhere.
In particular, Harriet’s children are important characters in relation to her, but their development is stunted. Kenny is adorable and precocious, and he does get a subplot about being bullied for his oddball movie passions inherited from mom. Jane, while happy enough to respond to inquiries, is a less known quantity, and I wish that we heard more from her. Unfortunately, the narration sticks pretty tightly to Harriet, so your mileage with this book is greatly influenced by your tolerance for her particular neuroses.
I say that glibly but don’t mean to make light of them. For some people I can see this being an excellent work. I’m sure Harriet will strike a chord with many. Hay’s choice to portray a marriage that is not broken or dysfunctional yet still abjectly unsatisfying is a good one. Harriet and Lew love each other in a way, but neither seems to have the key to making the other one happy. They just kind of putter along, except they aren’t quite old enough for that old married couple stereotype to kick in. It’s interesting the few times that Hay shows them having sex, because it tends to happen out of the blue and Harriet seems to indicate she enjoys it—but I guess her emotional needs aren’t being met. She wants someone who is a little more combative, hence the attraction to Jack, or even the little thrill she gets from being so annoyed by Leah’s manipulations.
So I’d be lying if I claimed nothing happens in this book. There are many interesting character dynamics. Hay has that easygoing, classically CanLit style of narration with smooth dialogue full of names of people I don’t recognize because I was born after the Turner years. The point being: there is an audience for this book, and I’m not quite it, but I’m probably next door to the people who are it. Garbo Laughs is sincere in its attempt to blend humour, hubris, and humility into a kind of sharp and pointed look at modern married life through the lens of the golden oldies. It reminds me a bit of Georgian novels, but Hay’s writing doesn’t quite sing to me the way Austen’s or Brontë’s does.