After surviving the sense of loss that came when I finally finished reading Masters of Rome, after failing to be engrossed by The Friday Night Knitting Club, what could I do but turn back to another of my Old Favourites — those tried-and-true books that have pulled me through the best and worst times of my life, that have made me laugh, cry, and changed the way I see the world.
Emma Who Saved My Life may just be my favourite book of all time. A few random thoughts that occur as I try to review it:
1. I have this thing (as you know) about preferring novels by women and being suspicious of novels by men, yet two of Wilton Barnhardt’s three novels would make my Top Ten list of Favourite Novels Ever. Should I say of him, as I do of Nick Hornby, that he writes as well as a woman? I don’t know.
2. Nothing makes you realize how much literature is a matter of subjective personal taste like reading Amazon customer reviews of a book you love. Some people adore this book as much as I do; others thing it’s complete garbage. Funny that. Makes me feel better about people not liking something I’ve written.
3. When we eventually go all Star-Trekky and switch entirely to digital rather than paper books (and I myself am seriously being lured by the Sony Digital Reader and the Amazon Kindle right now, with happy thoughts of the trees I will save), the thing I will miss most is the beat-up look of an old, much-loved, much-read book. I pick up my copy of Emma and I am viscerally reminded of all the places this book and I have been together, going back to Oshawa in the late 80s when Cathy and I both read it and thought it was hilarious.
It is hilarious. But it’s also poignant and bittersweet. It’s a funny, quirky novel about a relatively shallow and self-absorbed young man, Gil, who moves to New York City in 1974 to become an actor. The ups and downs (mostly downs) of trying to make it in the New York theatre scene while finding adequate living accommodations provide most of the book’s hilarity. The poignancy comes from Gil’s growing self-doubt and his ten-year relationship with Emma, the smart, screwed-up, impossible girl that he can’t get together with and can’t get over.
It’s so funny, but it’s also so sad because it’s a book about disillisionment, about how we can’t get the things we want when we’re young, and even though we may eventually settle down to things (and people) that are better for us, a part of us always yearns for that impossible dream that would have destroyed us had it ever come true. At least, that’s what I got out of the novel, reading it first in those same impressionable years — my twenties — that the novel’s characters are living through. I wasn’t trying to make it on stage in New York, but I was doing what Gil was doing — trying to figure out who I would be, what my life would be about, what everyone’s doing in their twenties — and this book indelibly stamped how I saw that process, what I believed to be true. It’s one of those books that’s so tied to my memories of the time when I first read it that I’m not sure I can extricate the book itself from the person I was then — my own hopes and dreams, my fear that my relationship with the person I loved then would be as doomed and complicated as Gil’s and Emma’s relationship was. (The answer to that one: sort of, but not really).
I come back to the book every few years for a re-read, and it never loses its freshness and its appeal — I still laugh at many of the same funny lines, I still utterly love the characters, and I still find the ending one of the saddest (and most bizarre) scenes ever written, in any story, anywhere.
Like the negative Amazon reviewers, you might try this book and NOT like it — I guess that’s conceivable. But try it, please. For me.