Wednesday, 29 June 2011
Review: An Education by Lynn Barber
First published in: 2009
By: Penguin Books
1960: A stranger in a sports car offers a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl a lift. She accepts.
This was the beginning of the two most bizarre years of Lynn Barber's life. For the stranger charmed his way into her family, and turned all their lives upside down. He wined and dined Lynn in posh restaurants, whisked her off to Paris and introduced her to his louche friends – all with the delighted agreement of her parents. And without ever letting on exactly what he did for a living. Only when he proposed and she was on the brink of accepting did she find out something which made her realize she was making the biggest mistake of her life.
Beginning with this remarkable episode, this is an unforgettable memoir. Barber takes the story to the heady world of 1960s Oxford, followed by her improbable career as a sexpert and author of How to Improve Your Man in Bed.
The first thing that's worth mentioning about this book, is that despite the synopsis and despite being the entire subject of the film made, the teen-aged Lynn Barber's affair with a older conman is only a small part of her memoirs; it takes up only a chapter in it. It's easy to see why this episode in her life has been the most focused on: it manages to somehow be both extraordinary and relatable. You can understand how a teenage girl could be fooled like that, but it's still shocking to read about.
Real-life, as it often is, was far seedier and less romantic than the movies and the young Barber wasn't starry-eyed and swept off her feet like her film counterpart, Jenny. She wasn't in love with her older man; she was more or less pushed into dating him by her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Barber only saw a wealthy man to be caught and didn't much care that their daughter was barely legal. The whole story is pretty sordid and sad and the result is it changes and defines Barber from then on.
The rest of the book deals with, well, the rest of Barber's life up till the present. She goes to Oxford, marries and becomes a successful journalist. The book is short, under 200 pages and it's written in a breezy, chatty style that means it's easy to plough through (I finished it in 2 sittings). Barber is witty and acerbic, always looking at events in her life with a detached eye. She made me laugh a lot, but she's quite difficult to warm to. If you need a sweet, tenderhearted narrator then this book probably isn't for you: Barber's writer nickname is "The Demon Barber" and I wasn't exactly left puzzling as to why. Her description of her husband's illness and eventual death is genuinely moving, though and really brought back my own experience of seeing a loved one suffer like that.
Mostly, however, I would recommend this book to anyone who's interested in a career in journalism. There aren't many out there with Barber's experience: over the course of her career, she works for both newspapers and magazines, in both the US and the UK and from the 70s to the current millennium. Impressive, no? It's totally fascinating to see how it all operates; in different publications, different countries, different decades. And there's a funny celebrity anecdote or two as well, if you need more incentive.
Rating: 4 stars