An Education

This was utterly fantastic. An Education is a wonderful memoir written by Lynn Barber, a journalist whose career led her to interesting people and places, and whose family led her to many important revelations about life and love. Chiefly, this memoir has gained recognition for the role it played as the jumping-off-point for Nick Hornby's screenplay for the film, An Education, but it deserves a great deal of fuss simply based on its own merit. Do not think that the movie encompasses the entire memoir -- the film is based on a single chapter from Barber's life involving a relationship with an older man while she prepared to attend university. I admit that I saw the movie first, loved it, and became interested in reading the memoir as a result of that, but when a friend (a journalist who bears a striking resemblance to Carey Mulligan) praised the memoir with such enthusiasm, I knew it would be lovely. I did, however, make the mistake of starting to read this in the evening before bed... and then I looked up to find it was after 2am. This could very easily be a single-sitting read and I already have great plans to give this volume as a gift to several witty and intelligent women in my acquaintance. In my discussion of the book below, I might inadvertently give something away, but when it's a memoir, one can hardly call it a "spoiler." Besides, if you're reading this memoir, you should be reading it for the wonderful style of storytelling.

I suppose one can point to her background in journalism for the fact that Barber was able to write such a short memoir with such substantial content and detail. She's able to focus in on the parts of her life that she feels are important without rambling... and without giving the impression that she's skipping anything as a means of glazing over it. She leaves the reader wanting more -- a true accomplishment, indeed, for a memoir. She quickly goes through her childhood and parents, pausing for some lengthier focus on her first significant relationship with an older man named Simon. Quite the charmer, he even wins over her parents with ease, never pushing Barber into anything and yet still making her feel like she was in his debt for first exposing her to the finer things in life. It helps that she also adores his glamorous friends, too. So she ignores his shady business deals and accepts the lack of information she receives about him, submitting to his infantile pet names and handing over her virginity when she reaches seventeen. When Simon proposes and her parents are delighted, noting that now she need not go to university, Barber feels betrayed by what feels like wasted years of education if this is all they wanted for her. What was the point of instilling such a respect for education and learning if she was going to make them just as happy by getting married? Ultimately, Simon turns out to be married already and even though Barber had to leave her school because of the engagement (coincidentally, at her school, they also believed there was no need for her to be both engaged and sitting for exams to enter university), she ultimately succeeds in her parents' original goal of having her attend Oxford University, but not without some cost... "an education," indeed.

Once at Oxford, she embarks upon a hedonistic lifestyle, determined to do the minimal amount of work at school in favor of learning other things from life... which seems to be working decently well for her until she meets the man that she knows is The One from first glance. After finagling herself into sharing a house with him, she and David quickly become an item and eventually get married, having two daughters and creating a non-traditional but quite functional marriage. Details of her marriage and family life are pushed aside for discussion of her career, which one assumes was true in the living of the experience as well as the re-telling. Barber begins her career by proofreading and writing for Penthouse and despite many people asking if she was ashamed of working for a soft-core porn publication, Barber insists that she's quite proud of the experience and indebted to the people she worked with for showing her the ropes of the industry (publishing/journalism, not porn), allowing her to be part of a small publication and thus experience many different perspectives. Ultimately, she moved on to more mainstream journalism, but also penned two books that offered sex advice to women at a time when many such publications were focused a bit more on seductive undressing and married couples communing with each other.

Her memoir covers her wide and varied career in journalism, relating just the perfect amount of witty stories to the point where one wishes there were more. She also discusses her brief experience as a stay-at-home mother and ultimately the narrative shifts to focus a great deal on her husband, whose health declines towards the end of the memoir. The book closes with his death and her coming to grips with her altered reality, touching upon the question as to whether we ever entirely know someone or if we can spend a lifetime with them and still remain a stranger. For Barber, this question comes up when she receives a photograph of David and believes that he must have been in love with the woman who look the picture -- instead of being furious at the idea of her deceased husband's wandering, she experiences a kind of relief for never being home enough or being a good enough wife. Ultimately, though, she comes to believe she was wrong about the question of David having an affair (at least with this particular photograph-taker) and Barber allows the reader to feel mixed emotions with this -- no doubt, the mixed emotions that she, herself, shared.

While the story of Lynn Barber's life to date makes for a great read, its her writing style and her own charm that are the truly appealing points to this memoir. With a reputation for being a savage writer, it should come as no shock that her parents are not treated kid gloves, but then, she herself is subjected to the same treatment. She frankly offers up the fact that she is not at all what most people expect when they meet her, citing her elocution accent as her worst attribute. Her rise within the field is something she rather attributes to chance, but one can see that her writing style is extraordinary. She really gets to the heart of matters, be in analysis of someone else or herself. In the closing chapters surrounding her husband, she is honest in her own feelings of distaste at lingering at David's side in hospitals, opting not to paint herself as a dutiful pillar of wifely devotion. She also brings David under scrutiny, but at last one can see that she's being somewhat delicate there; clearly there was a great amount of love between the two, whatever other problems might have cropped up.

Life is very real the way that Barber depicts it, without any attempt to dress it up or make false claims to spare the "innocent." People can become hypocrites without realizing it; time marches mercilessly on and somehow a loved one can grow old all of a sudden; money cannot solve everything and perhaps one would be happier without it. She's clearly had a very interesting career and I'm only sorry that it took a movie of her novel to bring her work to my attention. She certainly can stand as a bit of a mentor to any young journalists out there, even if the industry is always changing... her lessons on sticking to her own style and seeking out interesting colleagues are certainly timeless. The movie is a very different experience from the book, though a delight in its own right. I can't imagine a similar circumstance where I was as pleased with both book and movie but for very different reasons. That said, don't let the movie stand as a substitute -- this memoir is truly a gem.

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