GARBO Laughs


A Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year
A Quill & Quire Top Five Canadian Fiction Book of the Year
A Maclean’s Top Ten Book of the Year

Elizabeth Hay’s runaway national bestseller is a funny, sad-eyed, deliciously entertaining novel about a woman caught in a tug of war between real life and the films of the past. Inflamed by the movies she was deprived of as a child, ...

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2004 Hardcover New 0786261498. New and unread pictorial hardcover LARGE PRINT. No remainder. Boards have some light rubbing.; 8.60 X 6.36 X 1.10 inches; 555 pages.

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A Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year
A Quill & Quire Top Five Canadian Fiction Book of the Year
A Maclean’s Top Ten Book of the Year

Elizabeth Hay’s runaway national bestseller is a funny, sad-eyed, deliciously entertaining novel about a woman caught in a tug of war between real life and the films of the past. Inflamed by the movies she was deprived of as a child, Harriet Browning forms a Friday-night movie club with three companions-of-the-screen: a boy who loves Frank Sinatra, a girl with Bette Davis eyes, and an earthy sidekick named after Dinah Shore. Into this idiosyncratic world, in time with the devastating ice storm of 1998, come two refugees from Hollywood: Harriet’s Aunt Leah, the jaded widow of a screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950s, and her sardonic, often overbearing stepson, Jack. They bring harsh reality and illuminate the pull of family and friendship, the sting of infidelity and revenge, the shock of illness and sudden loss. Poignant, brilliant, and delightfully droll, Garbo Laughs reveals how the dramas of everyday life are sometimes the most astonishing of all.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A novel so subtle and so wonderfully layered that it resembles a black-and-white movie of a certain era, full of elegance, aura and wit.… Brilliant.…Breathtaking.…”
Globe and Mail

“Outstanding – deft and compassionate and bittersweet.… About community, in all its guises; about family, old friends, and cherished foes.…”
–Bill Richardson

“Fully alive with people you want in your life.… Occasionally a novel comes along with a flavour so unique and beguiling that a reader thinks, ‘This one is unforgettable – I’ll have it forever.’… That’s Garbo Laughs.”
National Post

“Think Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo meets Dorothy Parker as channelled by John Irving.”
NOW (four-star review)

“Elizabeth Hay’s novel is an anatomy of all kinds of love.… Full of Hay’s off-centre wisdom and bull’s-eye psychological accuracy.…”
–Katherine Ashenburg

“Dreamy, moving, frequently hilarious novel.… Startlingly original.…”

“A sparkling demonstration of Hollywood’s hold on our fantasies – and its awkward fit with our earthbound selves.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Sophisticated and intelligent, fresh and endlessly inventive.…”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“[Hay] has a delightful deadpan wit, the kind that sneaks up on you.”
New York Times Book Review

“Thumbs up for Garbo Laughs! Four-star novel celebrates love, film, and love of film.”
Ottawa Citizen

“Innovative in its reach and a stylistic delight, Garbo Laughs is endlessly engaging. Oscar for Best Novel.”
–Terry Griggs

“Imaginative, droll, and incisive, Hay’s profound tale of attempted escape and accepted responsibility, of found joy and dreaded sorrow, deftly explores the dangers and benefits of fantasy.”
Booklist (starred review)

“There aren’t enough adjectives to describe Garbo Laughs. The book is, quite simply, wonderful. It is inventive, intelligent, polished and enchanting. And you won’t be able to put it down.… Garbo Laughs is both beautifully imagined and sophisticated, a multi-faceted chronicle that holds the reader in a state of pure admiration. Hay is engaging and incisive.… Bittersweet, richly entertaining and deeply moving.…”
London Free Press

“A beautiful story of love and loss. With wit and sympathy, Elizabeth Hay superimposes the world of film perfectly on the life of Harriet Browning. A novel that should be read and re-read.”
–Jury citation, Governor General’s Award

“A gracefully written novel, mapping out the patterns of tensions and release in a family whose members are best able to express their love and disappointment through the films of the past.”
Publishers Weekly

Garbo Laughs, written in Hay’s by now distinctively understated voice, gives us her literary talent in full, extravagant bloom… [it] finds a pitch-perfect balance between comedy and sadness.”
Vue Weekly (Edmonton)

“Thoughtful, smart, sardonically funny.…”
Toronto Star

“You don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate this finely crafted, poignant and emotionally resonant novel.…Absolutely delightful.…”
–Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“With meticulous language and subtle comedy, Elizabeth Hay creates a humane portrait of people whose passionate nostalgia for the fictions of the silver screen both cushion and illumine their lives.”
–Joan Barfoot

“Hay’s forte is creating character and then establishing fierce but understated bonds between them.…This could easily become a Canadian classic.”
–Catherine Gildiner

Garbo Laughs is a summer house of a novel, one through which we move with languid ease and pleasure, never wanting the season to end.”
Raleigh News & Observer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786261499
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 1/22/2004
  • Pages: 555
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hay is the author of two highly acclaimed, bestselling novels. Her first novel, A Student of Weather (2000), won the CAA MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction and the TORGI Award, and was a finalist for The Giller Prize, the Ottawa Book Award, and the Pearson Canada Reader’s Choice Award at The Word on the Street. Her most recent novel, Garbo Laughs (2003), won the Ottawa Book Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. She is also the author of Crossing the Snow Line (stories, 1989); The Only Snow in Havana (non-fiction, 1992); Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (non-fiction, 1993), and Small Change (stories, 1997), which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her stories have been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories, The Journey Prize Anthology, and The Oxford Book of Stories by Canadian Women, edited by Rosemary Sullivan. She has won a National Magazine Award Gold Medal for Fiction and a Western Magazine Award for Fiction. In 2002, she received the prestigious Marian Engel Award.

Elizabeth Hay lives in Ottawa.

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Read an Excerpt

Kenny lay awake in the smallest room in the house. It had a narrow bed, a narrow desk, and a cupboard-closet that started partway up the wall. In the dark he could make out his desk covered in books – including his bible, the movie guide of 1996 – and his clothes hanging from a hook on the open cupboard door. With his dad he had gone to a used–clothing store and bought the oversized brown–and–white checked–tweed sports jacket and the red–and–pink tie and the long-sleeved blue shirt, his gangster outfit, and his dad had let him borrow, indefinitely, his black fedora. From Bolivia. His dad was a traveller.

Kenny loved Frank Sinatra. His mom – he couldn’t believe this – thought Marlon Brando was better.

“Who’s better?” he’d asked her.

“Not again,” she said.

“No, wait. Just this time. Who’s better? Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando?”

“Are you ready for this?” she said. “Can you take it? I’d have to say Marlon Brando.”

“You’re crazy, you’re nuts. I ­can’t believe what I’m hearing.”

She laughed, as one nut laughs with another, since she too wore her movie heart on her sleeve. “He’s a better actor. He’s better-looking. Which ­isn’t to say I ­don’t like Frank Sinatra. I do. At least, I like the young Frank Sinatra when he looked like Glenn Gould. He was an awful thug when he got older.”

Kenny turned to Dinah, who lived down the street and never minded his questions and always answered them to his liking. “Who do you like better, Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando?”

“Frank,” she said.

“Me too.” He was very excited. “You think he’s a good singer?”

“The best.”

“My mom says Marlon Brando is better.”

“Marlon Brando is good.”

“But he’s not better than Frank Sinatra?”

“Frankie,” said Dinah, “is divine.” But Dinah had always gone for skinny, serious, temperamental guys, until recently.

They were in the middle days of November, and all the hesitations of early fall, the tentative snowfalls and bewitching spells of balminess, had given way to sudden cold. From under the covers, in the pale green light that came through the curtains, Kenny heard sounds – soft sounds ”– that froze the blood in his veins. There was tapping, sawing, tiny running feet on the porch roof outside his window. Rats. He knew it would be hard for a rat to walk up the wall, but in the night anything was possible. Then water, flowing water. Then scratching. Bugs were in the walls. Big-eyed, hairy, losing their grip. He heard one land, very softly, on the windowsill beside his head and was about to call out when something else, something hard, slapped against a window.

It sounded like Jean Simmons slapping Marlon Brando across the face.

It worked. After that it was quiet.

Frankie was good in that movie, and Frankie hated Marlon so Kenny hated him too. Jean Simmons was pretty nice; though, on the whole, he had to say he preferred Vivian Blaine.

He closed his eyes. For a while he pictured the fight, Marlon cracked over the head with a chair, Jean Simmons drunk and funny and throwing punches. He wondered if Havana was really like that. His dad would know. Then Big Julie was rolling dice in the sewer and Nathan Detroit was eating Mindy’s cheesecake with a fork.

In the morning he opened his eyes when his mom opened the curtains and he said, “Let’s watch Guys and Dolls.

“Why not Take Me Out to the Ball Game? You ­haven’t seen that one yet.”

“Is Frankie in it?”

“Of course,” she said.


Three nights later the slow, searching sound of a taxi came up the wet street and stopped directly below Kenny’s window. A door slammed, the taxi pulled away, and then Lew Gold was heading up the steps and Kenny was heading down. His sister was on his heels.

Their house was two storeys high and made of yellow brick. The wood trim in the hallway was American chestnut, a tree wiped out by blight in the 1920s. What remained of the old forests was inside. Everything outside had come inside, even the movies. The banister Kenny never bothered to hold on to was American chestnut too, golden brown in colour, but the steps themselves were white pine from the forests of white pine that used to grow where this house was standing. Lew’s grandfather had built the house in 1928; after he died it passed out of the family, until last spring, when the grandson had the pleasure of buying it back.

Lew came through the door, and then what a tangle of big and little limbs there was. What a scene of affection. He looked so tanned and lighthearted, so eager and beloved and beaming, that Harriet, standing in the living-room doorway, couldn’t resist. She said, “Something unpleasant happened while you were gone.”

Doña,” he smiled, reaching over the kids to take into his arms his northern-eyed, meatless-on-principle, strangely yearning wife. “I’ve missed you,” he said. And the gift, wrapped in a piece of newspaper in his shirt pocket, got pressed a little flatter.

It was late – a Sunday night – but he could tell by the look in her eye that she was still under the influence of her Friday-­night movie. A certain distancing look she directed his way that made him feel he was blocking her view. You’re a better door than a window, he heard her thinking, why don’t you sit down and remove your hat? Then she would be alone again with Sean Connery or Gene Kelly or Jeff Bridges or Cary Grant. The list was endless. He had been gone for two weeks, to distant parts, and she had spent it with who was it this time? A glance at the video box on top of the tv gave him his answer: Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. How could a man compete?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Among other things, this novel gives us the story of a marriage. How does that story develop over the course of the novel? What does this particular story of a marriage say to you about the romance and challenges of marriage more generally?

2. Characters in a novel are created by the author not only as separate individuals, but also in support both of the characterization of others within the full cast of characters and of the novel’s themes. What are for you the most telling details in the characterization of Lew? Think about this question both in terms of what is most vivid–what brings him to life–and what is most important for the novel. What does Elizabeth Hay achieve for the novel as a whole (its themes, tone, etc.) by imagining this particular man as Harriet’s husband? For example, what does his profession add to the novel? Why does Hay choose to distance Lew from the obsession with movies? Did you fall in love with him?

3. Harriet says that she has “no sense of humour” [p 10]–is that true? In what scenes, and to what ends, does the author develop this question? How might the question of Harriet’s humour (or lack of it) relate to Lew’s characterization of her as living “halfway between the one extreme of lentil-fed sadness and the other extreme of movie-fed rapture” [p 11]? Why is the novel called Garbo Laughs? Is this book a comedy?

4. How does the author make the relationship between mother and son–Harriet and Kenny–so extraordinarily moving? What are the most important elements of this relationship and what scenes and details reveal the relationship most effectively? Why does it matter so much to Kenny whether others share his assessment of the merits of one film or one actor over another?

5. What is Jane’s role in the novel? Does it bother you that she is less central or less vivid than Kenny? What does this tell you about families or about the making of novels?

6. Harriet says she needs a “sidekick”–and the author provides one in the person of Dinah Bloom. What are Dinah’s functions in the novel? How does her story develop alongside Harriet’s?

7. What do each of the neighbours contribute to the novel?

8. How do Leah and Jack function in the novel? What would be lost if they were not associated with Hollywood?

9. What do the particular films and actors championed by the characters tell you about them? How does the novel’s movie talk work in connection with other matters of importance in the novel?

10. How do Harriet’s unsent letters to film critic Pauline Kael function within the novel? The author employs as the novel’s epigraph a quotation from Pauline Kael: “We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us.” How are we to take this? Why will we “never know”? How does “the damage” weigh against the positive contributions that movies make to our lives? How do you think Elizabeth Hay would answer this question?

11. How important is it that Harriet Browning is a writer and a teacher of creative writing? What issues about writing does the novel address, and how does the discussion of writing illuminate the example of writing which is the novel you have read? How does Harriet’s interest in movies connect with her writing and her ideas about writing?

12. The ice storm is described as “a most beautiful catastrophe” [p 173], and Leah tells Dinah that she “‘could get a book out of this…. I’m serious. You should be taking notes for a novel. You might win a prize and get somewhere’” [p 185]. This suggestion interrupts briefly the “suspended disbelief” which allows us to experience the fictional world as a real world, and points toward the book we are holding in our hands as an object made by a writer. Such gestures in a work of fiction are called “metafictional.” Why does the author choose Leah to supply this metafictional touch?

13. Photographs of the ice storm, we are told, “wouldn’t do it justice” [p 173]. Is it part of the intention of this novel to capture (and so do some sort of “justice” to) the reality of the great ice storm by presenting it to our imaginations through words? What descriptions of or reflections upon the ice storm are most effective for you? Is it in their returning you to the “real world” of the storm that you feel this power? Or does the power reside in effective interplay with other elements in the novel? Or is it in the mixing of fictional and historical worlds that the ice storm is most potent?

14. Why might Harriet think that Ottawa is like Brigadoon? We’re given some explanation: for example, she thinks that Ottawa and Havana are both “backwaters” and so “in their different ways … a lot like Brigadoon” [p 8]. What other explanations can you draw from the text as a whole? Why is Havana invoked? What do you think of this characterization of Ottawa? Is it important that Ottawa is the nation’s capital? Is there an implicit contrast to any other place? To what extent is this image of Ottawa as a “safe, protected” place altered by the ice storm? Does the Brigadoon reference tell you anything about Harriet’s consuming interest in movies?

15. How is the image of the fern developed? Why is “The Fern” the title of the novel’s first section? The second section is called “The Ice Storm,” and the third is called “Spring.” How do these three section titles work together?

16. Why does Elizabeth Hay include instructions for the making of cappuccino and potato salad in this novel?

17. A number of events in this novel are threatening in one way or another. Try listing all of them. What kinds of danger do they represent? What issues of innocence and guilt are raised? Which are inevitable, and which could be predicted or avoided?

18. Did you anticipate the novel’s ending? Or the major events in the latter part of the book? When did you see them coming? Do you think Elizabeth Hay found the right ending for this novel? How does the discussion of the ending of Don Quixote [pp 335-36] bear on the ending of Garbo Laughs?

19. As you finish the novel, and are leaving Harriet Browning, consider closely once more what you think of her. Did you care about her deeply? What moved you? What interested you most about her? What still puzzles you? What do you think will remain with you?

20. Choose half a dozen or so of your favourite moments in this novel–scenes, passages, even a single line of dialogue–and prepare yourself to defend their excellence against all comers.

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