Garbo Laughs

Garbo Laughs

4.0 1
by Elizabeth Hay

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This is a novel about movie love. Set in Ottawa in the 1990s, it is the quixotic tale of tall, thin Harriet Browning, inflamed by the movies she was deprived of as a child. Harriet is a woman so saturated with the movies, seen repeatedly and swallowed whole, that she no longer fits into this world. Bent on seeing everything she has missed, she forms a Friday night… See more details below


This is a novel about movie love. Set in Ottawa in the 1990s, it is the quixotic tale of tall, thin Harriet Browning, inflamed by the movies she was deprived of as a child. Harriet is a woman so saturated with the movies, seen repeatedly and swallowed whole, that she no longer fits into this world. Bent on seeing everything she has missed, she 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 Dinah for Dinah Shore. Breaking in upon this quiet backwater, in time with the devastating ice storm of 1998, come two refugees from Hollywood, the faded widow of a famous screenwriter and her movie-expert stepson. They are harsh reality. With them come blackouts, arguments, accidents, illness and sudden death. But what chance does real life stand when we can watch movies instead? What hope does real love have when movie love, in all its brief intensity, is an easy option? In this comedy of secondhand desire, movies and movie lovers come first

Author Biography: Elizabeth Hay is the author of five books, including Small Change and A Student of Weather. Her books have been shortlisted for a number of awards, including Canada's two most prestigious, The Governor General's Award and the Giller Prize. She recently won the Marian Engle Award for a woman writer in mid-career. She lives in Ottawa.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Elizabeth Hay, the author of the acclaimed A Student of Weather, is a gifted stylist with an eye for telling detail and quietly cruel characterizations … Hay's characters are appealingly confused creations, if also a little too determinedly eccentric for their own good. The frequent movie talk and the interpolated Kael letters keep much of the dialogue breezy and pleasingly allusive. — Chris Lehmann
The New York Times
The strength of Hay's second novel -- the first, A Student of Weather, was a finalist for Canada's Giller Prize -- comes from the author's fresh observations on the ebb and flow of love, the vagaries of female friendship, the power of the changing seasons (a good chunk of the book takes place during the historic ice storm of 1998) and the realities of the writer's life. — Karen Karbo
Publishers Weekly
Garbo hardly ever laughed, and when she did, it was dubbed; reality is similarly transformed in this quirky, dreamy novel infused with movie mania. A plague of cinematic absorption settles over an Ottawa neighborhood in Hay's latest offering (her debut, A Student of Weather, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize). Harriet Browning's ascetic mother refused her the frivolity of the cinema as a child, and as an adult she views films obsessively. In middle age, she is the center of a small group of cinephiles: her son, Kenny, obsessed with Sinatra, watches classic movies to forget his troubles at school; her daughter, Jane, on the brink of adolescence, longs for the glamorous life; her neighbor and friend Dinah may be attracted mainly by the familial activity of watching together. Lew, Harriet's realist husband, is left out of this loop; his escapes come in the form of business trips to South America. The arrival of Harriet's aunt Leah, the trouble-making widow of a Hollywood screenwriter, and her stepson Jack, a lazy, fast-talking writer, leads to shifts in affections and allegiances. It is illness, however, that brings an end to the movie-watching, in true Hollywood weepy fashion. References to Pauline Kael (beloved by Harriet), top 100 movie lists and a lineup of movie greats (Marlon Brando, Sean Connery and Bette Davis are among the favorites) are as integral to the story as the interactions of its film-besotted protagonists. This is a gracefully written novel, mapping out the patterns of tension and release in a family whose members are best able to express their love and disappointment through the films of the past. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Canadian author Hay's new work is much like an obverse bookend to her first novel, A Student of Weather. While that title is a book of intensity, heat, and unrequited relationships, Garbo Laughs is a novel of emotional winter, ice storms, and underdeveloped relationships. Harriet Browning, her family, and her friends don't so much live life as observe it through the filter of movies. Theirs is a world in which "the hold that Hollywood has on all of our minds" is such "that everything finally is a cliche." The relationships between friends and family are strained by the arrival of a cousin and aunt who represent the wider world, and by the ice storm that encases Ottawa, where the novel is set. Hay's characters are somewhat stilted, and Harriet is a victim of Hay's deft drawing of an insipid and timid woman-the only emotion she stirs in the reader is the desire to give her a good shake. Garbo Laughs has the potential to be a popular cult novel for movie buffs, but for other readers it is like looking at a negative instead of at the fully developed picture.-Caroline M. Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Garbo, Brando, Sean Connery . . . the stars are out in one Ottawa home that's experiencing video heaven. Canadian Hay follows her widely praised first novel (A Student of Weather, 2001; Small Change, stories, also 2001) with this investigation of love and romance on-screen and off. Harriet Browning's dad would not let his kids watch movies. Maybe that's how her "disease of video love" took hold. Now, in 1997, she's a middle-aged housewife and part-time teacher, married to architect Lew Gold, with two preteen kids, Kenny and Jane, movie-lovers both. Harriet and Kenny wallow luxuriously in film lore; only Lew is unaffected by movie mania, as he waits patiently for his wife's return. But Harriet is an insomniac, and she's also writing (but not mailing) letters to the New Yorker's redoubtable Pauline Kael: a melancholy woman, Harriet, but also smart, sympathetic, and a devoted mother. Does she like movies because "she could love someone who . . . didn't know her . . . but not someone whose face had been blurred and compromised by dealing with her"? That's the heart of the matter. The question takes on new urgency with the arrival among their eccentric neighbors of feisty Dinah Bloom, a single woman, older than Harriet but still attractive; she too is a movie-lover, and joins the club. In fact, she falls in love with the whole family (as does the reader), while noting the dangerous imbalance in the marriage as she and Lew are drawn to each other. Additional complications follow, thanks to Harriet's self-invited houseguest Aunt Leah, who reeks of malice (she's the widow of a blacklisted screenwriter), and her bearlike stepson Jack. Will Dinah and Lew make the leap into adultery? Or will shesettle for being Jack's fourth wife (he's wooing her with roses)? We can sense Hay letting her characters guide her through the muddle; the result is a variety of hard and soft landings. A sparkling demonstration of Hollywood's hold on our fantasies-and its awkward fit with our earthbound selves. Author tour. Agent: Bella Pomer

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Product Details

Counterpoint Press
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5.70(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.77(d)

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?

From the Hardcover edition.

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