Susie Boyt has been a fan of the legendary Judy Garland – who died five months after Boyt was born – for as long as she can remember. In this book, she talks about her own life (although this is not an autobiography) and how her love of Garland has affected her.
WARNING: This review is probably going to become a rant!
I expected to like this book. I wanted to like it, I really did. But I couldn’t. Not only did I dislike the book, I actually got annoyed and irritated with it. I had expected an amusing memoir about fan-worship of a star, with a metaphorical rolling of the eyes by the author at the lengths she would go to in the name of that fan-worship. What I actually read was a lot of self-indulgent, over analytical wittering. (Perhaps I should partly blame myself for not realising beforehand what type of book this was.)
Lets make no bones about this – the author is not just a fan of Judy Garland, she is obsessed (something which she herself acknowledges). Baking a pie? She instantly thinks of a speech from a Garland film where Garland likens herself to a pie, and recites the speech over and over in her head, desperately making sure she has the words right. Washing up? Remember that scene where Judy Garland washed up? And it’s not enough to just remember the scene – Boyt analyses the scene and breaks it down – what did it mean? What was Judy conveying? Boyt mentions kind words spoken by characters played by Judy Garland and attributes them to Garland herself, seemingly unable to distinguish between Garland and the character. She also sends out questionnaires to other Judy-fans (the hyphen is important; Boyt mentions her Judy-work, her Judy-friends, etc.) asking such questions as ‘What has Judy taught you?’ ‘What qualities do you share with Judy?’ ‘What would you have done to help Judy if you could?’ ‘What would you say to Judy if you could?’ and so on.
She also divides Garland’s fans into bad fans (apparently those who dare to make a point about Garland’s drug use or other personal problems), good fans (those who only focus on the positive aspects of Judy Garland’s life) and crazy-good fans. She mentions one ‘crazy-good fan’ who wrote to Grace Kelly’s family shortly after Grace died tragically young and unexpectedly, and demanded that Grace’s Oscar which she won for The Country Girl, be sent to the Garland family where it truly belonged (Kelly and Garland were both nominated for the Oscar and Kelly, controversially, won). Is that a good fan? Not to me – crazy maybe; rude, spiteful, downright insensitive, definitely.
The author acknowledges her own obsession with Garland, and also acknowledges that other people may have different obsessions. On which subject she says, “It is possible that the object of your obsession is unequal to your heroic feelings, as mine will never be and that you are a tiny bit (and I whisper this) misguided in your choice, but your feelings are good and true, I see that.” Blimey! Patronising much? I recognise that Boyt was perhaps saying that to the obsessive, nobody else’s obsession can ever match up, but all the same, this was the point where I almost abandoned this book. (Later on, she describes doing ‘Judy-work’ in a library and looking round at the other patrons, who are doing their own work. They are swiftly dismissed with “it’s clear they just don’t love their work as I do….”)
Boyt also met with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli, to whom she complained that people were only ever interested in her father (Boyt’s father is the late artist, Lucien Freud). Minelli said that she understood exactly how that felt, in an obvious reference to people only being interested in Judy Garland. “But, but, but….” I thought, “Isn’t that exactly what Susie Boyt is doing? She is only interested in Liza Minelli because of who her mother is, and yet she complains about that behaviour in other people.”
Everything was taken so personally in this book; after Garland’s death, her friend Mickey Rooney said that if people had taken her to their hearts a bit earlier, she might still be alive. Boyt says that she takes this as a personal reproach, although she acknowledges that she was just five months old when Judy Garland died.
Boyt hates it that people exploited Judy Garland, but yet this whole book felt slightly exploitative. Garland is used an excuse for Boyt to wax lyrical about her own thoughts. Garland’s addiction to drugs is the basis for Boyt writing about sympathy, the nature of sympathy, when sympathy should be given and who by, and what form it should take (what is bad sympathy and what is good sympathy). This confused me – doesn’t the giving of sympathy depend on a lot of things? What kind of person the sympathiser is; what kind of person they are sympathising with is, what has happened to elicit sympathy, the relationship between the two people, etc. etc.
This is not the book to read if you want to find out more about Judy Garland – I would recommend you find a good biography instead, if that is your aim. There are aspects of Garland’s life contained within, but it seems to be written for people who are already very familiar with her life.
Sorry for the rant. We all have books we like and don’t like, but it’s rare for a book to actually annoy me to this extent. I never give up on a book once I’ve started it, so I did see this one through to the bitter end, but unfortunately I don’t feel able to recommend it to anyone else.
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