Garbo Laughs by Elizabeth Hay (McClelland & Stewart), 384 pages, $34.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Elizabeth Hay's second novel, garbo Laughs, reads like a moviegoer's wet dream. Think Woody Allen's Purple Rose Of Cairo meets Dorothy Parker as channelled by John Irving. Set in contemporary Ottawa, the story follows two years in the life of the Browning family as told by Harriet, a wife and mother who sees reality through a celluloid filter. Indecisive weather, for instance, is described as "Jack Lemmony." Her children, Jane and Kenny, have been weaned on classic films; they speak in snippets of dialogue and movie trivia.
Her husband, Lew, has learned to accept his wife's video obssession. Dinah Bloom, a retired journalist reminiscent of Dorothy Parker, wins Harriet's friendship by telling her she reminds her of Greta Garbo - it's the eyelashes.
Dinah is absorbed into Harriet's world and into Lew's heart.
Harriet doesn't keep a diary, she writes to film critic Pauline Kael, whose 5001 Nights At The Movies is referred to by the Brownings as the Bible. As with all addictions, this one has its downside for Harriet. But every page gently pulls you into Harriet's movie-saturated world.
Conflicts are avoided and tempers soothed by watching favourite videos or quoting Kael.
Pleasurable passive reading, film clips, quips and Hollywood gossip wash over you until you're a member of Harriet's cult. Hay lulls you into the softly lit world of film fantasy, and then slashes the screen images with quick, painful stabs of reality.
Cancer, infidelity, envy, death, desire and even schoolyard bullying intrude on Harriet's carefully constructed psyche. She makes her peace with her mortality by imagining that she'll find Kael in heaven and together they'll go meet Cary Grant.
There's no Hollywood ending, but the delicious images and sinfully good writing feel almost interactive - you can really connect to all her film references.
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