Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Devouring Books: An Education by Lynn Barber

Reading An Education brought up some extremely mixed feelings for me, because on the one hand it was well written, everything in its right place and so on, but I just honestly and truly didn't like the author at all. When what you're reading is said author's memoirs, this presents a bit of a problem, because everything is from her viewpoint and, I have to be honest, it's usually irritating, sometimes snobby, sometimes (it seems) completely uncaring. Barber may be the nicest woman in the world, but the way she presents herself in her memoirs, to me she sometimes seems like the worst. But I'll get back to that later.

It is important to know, from the outset, that An Education, is unlike the film, a memoir of Barber's entire life (so far) rather than just one incident that happened to her when she was 16. This makes for a much more interesting memoir, and obviously a much fuller idea of Barber's life, but this doesn't mean that the film was wrong for just focussing on one chapter of it- An Education, the second chapter of the memoir, is probably the most self-enclosed story in the book, and the one most suited to film, and then it is fun to find out what happened to Jenny (or, I suppose in this case, Lynn) after her whole debacle with an older man.

Unfortunately, real life, as it tends to be, is nowhere near as good as the film. As I may have mentioned, I really didn't like Barber (I kind of had the opposite reaction to the author that I did when I read Julie and Julia), and while it is perhaps unfair to compare a real person to a fictional character, I couldn't help but compare Barber to Jenny in the film. Barber was a lot more smug, a lot more snobby, and a good deal more judgemental and just plain rude really than it seemed that Jenny had the ability to be. Both show contempt towards their parents, but in Barber's case it seems to be quite nasty- she refers to her mother as having a 'beta brain', and doesn't really ever say anything nice about them. She does things for them grudgingly, but never really shows any love for them. I'm not one to say that you should necessarily love your parents no matter what because I think there are some things that are unforgivable, but to me, Barber's parents don't do any of these things. Would, for example, Barber have even gotten into Oxford without her parents' pushing and making her work hard? And would her life have been as good without that education? It's unlikely, but clearly she doesn't see it that way.

I think the main problem I had with Barber was her major attitude in life, which was this: if something goes well in her life, then it's all down to her and her input, and if something goes wrong, it is everyone else's fault. Case in point: her relationship with Simon (the older man). She blames her parents for letting her go out with him, and for encouraging her to marry him (although, surely, that more than anything is the one choice that was hers above anyone elses), but her eventually going to Oxford is all down to herself and has nothing to do with the hard work that her parents had been encouraging for years. I also hated her objections that working at Penthouse, and that Penthouse itself wasn't demeaning to women because "the pets [I mean, they were called PETS, for Gods sake!] were always treated well, as far as I could tell," which sort of misses the point of the fact that Penthouse's existence at all is sexist because it treated women as objects (or, you know, pets) rather than living, breathing, thinking individuals. But that's ok, because it doesn't directly affect Barber, and so it's not an issue at all.

The thing that I found most irritating about Barber, though, is that she behaves as though she is the product of a traumatic childhood, and that it is something that she can't break away from or change about herself. I'm a big believer in being able to change yourself and the way you act pretty easily, but she acts as though the things that she had been taught as a child were inescapable from. This ranges from hating her accent (honed through years of elocution lessons with her mother) which, I would have thought, if you'd changed once you could change again; and culminates in her, essentially, not being able to love properly because her parents 'always taught me to equate love with duty.' I mean, can she just get a grip? If she knows that love and duty are not interchangable, then why does she not just live her life according to that rather than 'what her parents taught her'? She seems to dislike her parents so much that it would be easy for her to do, surely? And, if she does think that love and duty are the same, then why does she resist spending time with her husband while he's really ill? I mean, we all hate being in hospitals, but we do it for the people we love who don't have a choice about being there- we don't leave as quickly as possible and fob them off to friends because we don't like being there. Just sayin'.

I realise that this reads more like a character assassination than a book review, but when said book is a memoir, it's difficult not to have a gut feeling about their personality and their actions. Like I said, I can't definitively say that 'Lynn Barber is a horrible person' or anything like that because obviously I don't know her- she could honestly be completely wonderful, and in that case I would apologise for all I have written. But, if this is the case, then why would she not choose to present herself in a nicer way, why would she not be less of a snob, and why would she feel the need to demean people that she doesn't think are as clever as her? I would suggest that you read this book for yourself, however, and decide how you feel about her yourself, because one person's Lynn Barber is another person's Julie Powell (if you know what I mean). Just don't expect to find Jenny between the pages of this book, because that's not who Barber is.

This is a review for the book of An Education. To see my review of the film (which I am far less grumpy about!), please click here.


  1. I felt the same way. I really liked the cover and the movie, so I bought it, but I couldn't stand Lynn Barber.

  2. Interesting. Shall have to read the book to compare book and film...if I can read the book without getting too irritated with her!

  3. @Alice- thank you! I was starting to feel like maybe I was just horrible, and she was fine... glad it's not just me!

    @Frances- I hate her. I mean, clearly, but seriously, I hate her. If you want I can send you the book for you too have a read of? (It's quite light which is the only reason I'm offering LOL!)

  4. This is interesting. I've seen the movie and didn't even know it was a book. I have to say, though, that I didn't especially love the movie either. Thanks for the review. These kinds of evaluations on a book are so helpful!

    -Miss GOP

  5. Yikes! This is one book I don't have to worry about reading anymore. Great review and very well written!

  6. This was a great review Laura! I hadn't know the film was based off a book, let alone a single chapter in a memoir, but I don't think I'll be getting to know it any better now!