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Emma Who Saved My Life

3.74  ·  Rating Details ·  433 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews

A big, funny, engaging, unsentimental and sometimes even wise book...Delightful."—New York Post

Author of Lookaway, Lookaway

Wilton Barnhardt's novel of coming of age in New York City brims with energy, surprise, irresistible humor, and the heady rush of youth. Its hero, Gil Freeman, a midwestern aspiring actor, comes to the city in search of stardom—but instead enco
Paperback, 496 pages
Published June 15th 1998 by Picador (first published 1989)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jun 22, 2015 Allan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm a sucker for novels set in NYC, so this book, featured in The Guardian's 'Best Books on NYC Readers' Picks' was always going to be right up my street.

Featuring Midwestern native and aspiring actor Gil Freeman's ten years in the city, starting in 1974, this novel was different from others that I've read set at the same time, thanks to its constant tongue in cheek humour. The NYC portrayed is still grimy and dangerous, but rather than denigrate the place, the author clearly loves the  city, an
Dec 12, 2009 Julie rated it it was amazing
so - here's the story with this one. I'm on a trip from hell with my now ex-husband and his german dad, French step-mom and their two little kids (dad started a second family in his 50's). We lived in Germany at the time and we took a three week trip to america where i was to be the tour guide. Would have been - but no one listened to me so among camping with six to a tent and very long car rides.. ick - it was not fun. But the way to escape? READ! So - when I finished Cider House Rules - we we ...more
Aug 17, 2008 Patrick rated it it was amazing
Any time I find this book selling for cheap, I buy it. I now have a mass market paperback, two trade paperbacks, a hardcover first edition and an advance reader's copy. I tell myself it's so I can give a copy to the next person I think will enjoy it, but who am I kidding - they're all for me.

This is an intimate epic. The story has the sweep of ten years and wonderfully examines the moments within them. It made me laugh, wince, cheer. I'm sorry I never met the people within the pages, and glad th
Jon Jon
Apr 17, 2008 Jon Jon rated it it was amazing
This book saved my life. I remember pulling it out of a box of books addressed to "Any Soldier" during the 1st Gulf War. The portrayal of NYC in the wild 70s was a thrilling romp and a ton of fun.

The unrequited love story appealed to the Romantic in me and made me long for a day I could enjoy a life like Gil's.
Oct 09, 2013 Brian rated it it was ok
I couldn't finish it; it was tediously self-indulgent and irritating.

If Emma ever ended saving the narrator's life, good for her; I lost interest halfway through.
J.D. Field
Jun 11, 2011 J.D. Field rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Once I lived in new York and was very poor indeed. I used to stop at Barnes and Nobles on 6th Avenue on my way home and read this bit by bit. To me it completely represents my New York experience...
Benjamin Thomas
Dec 24, 2016 Benjamin Thomas rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction-general
Another stretch read for me. As I’ve mentioned before, I try to utilize the month of December to sample some books that I would not normally choose for myself and this time around I decided to go completely against what I normally enjoy.

As most reviewers note, this is a coming of age novel about a young man, Gil, in his 20’s who is struggling to make it as a stage actor in New York during the 1970’s. It is written in the first person and, as soon becomes apparent, is written as a sort of memoir
Lynn Demarest
Jan 30, 2013 Lynn Demarest rated it it was amazing
I loved this book, a coming-of-age story that ends not with triumph but with a reassessment of the initial dream when it's partially realized.

"Emma" is carefully written and deeply imagined. It reads, in fact, like the memoir of an aspiring actor's decade in New York City, where he encounters dirt-poor bohemians, street thugs, ethnic immigrants, and a crazy poet named Emma Gennaro, who bounces in and out of Bellevue.

A few remarks :

1) I was sorry to see crazy Susan tossed aside, like trash into
Aug 09, 2013 Mollie rated it liked it
This book took me a while to get into. I started it several months ago, put it down, and didn't miss it. But I finally picked it back up and finished it. And really? Not much to write about. It's one of these books that doesn't really go anywhere - it's more of a chronological retelling of this guy Gil's life than a real novel. There's no arc, it's just narrative: this happened, and then this, and then this. And, its worst offense? The NYC obsession. I complain about this every chance I get: the ...more
Jul 30, 2008 Margaret rated it really liked it
Shelves: theatre
A dead-on, hugely funny novel about a young Midwestern man who comes to NY in the mid-70s to be an actor and the infuriating, entrancing young woman who takes him under her unreliable wing. I've rarely laughed out loud so often over a book. It has some echoes of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S in its straight-arrow narrator and the enticing eccentric he adores, and also in its incisive skewering of the (in this case) theatrical subset of NY society. A must read for anyone who has been, is, or will be an ...more
R. Morris
3.5 stars. Review pending!
Dec 02, 2010 Aaron rated it it was amazing
Oct 05, 2013 Martha rated it really liked it
Shelves: e-book
Wilton Barnhardt has a genius for the comic novel. This was very funny and was really enjoyable, though not quite as much as Lookaway, Lookaway. Gil Freeman is an aspiring actor in New York who has two female roommates, Lisa and Emma. He falls for the beautiful, difficult Emma and carries the torch for her for many years. Their final breakup scene is just classic and laugh-out-loud funny.

After ten years as a struggling actor, Gil finally packs it in after realizing that he is never going to be g
Aug 21, 2012 Marc rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
People of the world, read this book! The writing is colorful and rich. The characters jump off the page and instantly become your friends (although some you might not want). It's rare that a novel makes me laugh out loud like this one did and it happened numerous times. The story is about a young man struggling to make it as an actor on off off Broadway in late seventies/early eighties New York...and failing miserably. This could have easily been played for saccharine and nostalgic melodrama but ...more
May 01, 2013 Niffer rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction, drama
This is one of those books I picked up mostly based on the title and somewhat because it was outside of my normal reading genre. Generally I enjoyed it, although I felt as though it did drag occasionally. I did not care for the ending much, nor the direction the narrator's relationship with Emma went. I suspect that I was a little young to truly appreciate this book and maybe someday I will try to find it again to reread.
Sep 01, 2014 MLV rated it liked it
Loved this book in my late 20s. The fact that I still had this book in my shelves,which means it survived multiple moves and callings, means I would have rated it five stars back then. Now that seemingly everyone of all ages speaks/writes in this casual, meant to be clever, snappy repartee, it was tiresome at times and not nearly as engaging. I still like the story and it kept me turning the page at least.
C.K. Martin
Jan 31, 2013 C.K. Martin rated it it was amazing
I was absolutely crazy about this book in the late 80's and early 90's and reread it in 08 to see if it was as good as I remembered. Everything I'd loved about it - Gil's love affair with NYC, his infatuation with Emma, an overall feeling of hopefulness and youth - was as fresh as ever. I'm sure I'll read this book in another five, ten, fifteen years and still feel the same way I did about it when I first read it in 1989.
Marty Greenwell
Oct 13, 2013 Marty Greenwell rated it it was amazing
Lisa has had this on the bookshelf forever. Finally decided to read it. A book of Gil, from Chicago, who goes to NY to become an actor. The stories of Gil and others, especially Emma, give the scene of young people in an environment where life is fun but hard in arenas where only the superstars succeed ( acting and writing ). Emma is a character who is flawed but has the qualities that attract not just Gil but others but also drain you after years of chaos. Liked this book a lot....
May 05, 2011 Laurel rated it liked it
Recommended to Laurel by: Mathew
Shelves: novel, fiction, historical
The concept is fairly run of the mill, almost boring in summary: naive young Midwestern kid moves to NYC in search of women and fame, etc. What stands out about this book is not the plot, but the execution. Very nice, smooth writing that works in lots of complex but believable emotion without being maudlin. I think my hope for a different ending was a personal bias. All in all, quite enjoyable and different from what I usually read. Thanks, Mat!
Oct 20, 2016 Hannah rated it liked it
Not sure what to say about this ... I read avidly from the start, but there was a point when I put the book down for several days without regret. There were moments here I loved, but when the relationship between Gil and Emma deteriorated, so did the narrative. In the end, I find I like her much more than him, but he is what we're left with. So, meh.
May 01, 2012 Constance rated it liked it
I wasn't sure about this book at first (it follows a pretty overused "Joe Schmoe falls for hot screwed-up chick" theme), but I enjoyed it. I don't tend to read a lot of books that are written in first-person and this one is very appealing. It's funny and poignant and I was surprised just how much it made me reflect on my own life - always a good sign in a book. Recommended.
Christopher Farrell
May 25, 2014 Christopher Farrell rated it liked it
While I enjoyed the almost frenzied pace of this book, part of me wished it had calmed down at some point. Gil is a good narrator but his infatuation with Emma seemed almost silly to me at some times. This book is a love story to New York, but sadly doesn't make the love between its characters seem real.
Stephen Thorsett
Jul 07, 2008 Stephen Thorsett rated it liked it
Recommends it for: 20 somethings who love NYC
This story of a 20-something guy finding his way through NYC and the world was a five star read when I was a 20-something guy, but the spark was quite a bit dimmer on a second read nearly twenty years later. Great setting, fun characters, psychologically not quite convincing. I've averaged my ratings.
Jan 24, 2009 Diane rated it it was ok
Kind of a New Yorky hetero version of Babycakes crossed with an unfunny Underfoot in Show Business. I couldn't get why anyone would actually LIKE Emma, once the initial dazzle of her strangeness wore off - meaning, of course, that I didn't. Which made the book something of a slog. Some serious editing might have helped - it could have been half the length and possibly a much better book.
Jan 07, 2012 Kim rated it did not like it
Ugh. Am I ever glad to be done with this book. The characters, especially Emma, who unfortunately is what a significant portion of the book is about, are not likable. This was a slow read for me and I couldn't wait to be done.
Feb 20, 2015 Lisa rated it liked it
This book was interesting at times and fairly comical on and off. This took me longer than most books to get through and I'm not sure why, I think the storyline didn't really grab me. Gil's adventures were entertaining but his infatuation with Emma got old pretty quickly.
Apr 14, 2012 Daniel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is an immensely entertaining must read for anyone involved in theatre. Great characters, funny situations, and an interesting overall twist is blended directly in the era that the story spans. I return to this book as frequently as an old friend. It amuses me that much and more.
Jan 25, 2008 Sue rated it really liked it
Possibly my all-time favorite book. Perhaps it was the time in my life, but I connected with the characters.
Mary Kay
Sep 05, 2012 Mary Kay rated it it was ok
So so. Ending was the best part.
Apr 29, 2008 Esiobhanmitchell rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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Wilton Barnhardt (born 1960) is a former reporter for Sports Illustrated and is the author of Emma Who Saved My Life (1989), Gospel (1993), Show World (1999), and the New York Times bestseller Lookaway, Lookaway (2013). Barnhardt took his B.A. at Michigan State University, and was a graduate student at Brasenose College, University of Oxford, where he read for an M.Phil. in English.

He currently t
More about Wilton Barnhardt...

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“And I'm leaving you that plant," he lamented. "You are good with plants, aren't you?"
Great, I lied. (I could make the Congo wither and die...)”
“Emma, you and your poetry, me and my acting--what are we trying to do? We can't top this city. We poor would-be artists can't compete with or improve on the rich density of human experience on any random, average, slow summer night in New York--who are we trying to kid? In the overheard conversation in the elevator, in the five minutes of talk the panhandler gives you before hitting you for the handout, in the brief give-and-take when you are going out and the cleaning lady is coming in--there are the real stories, incredible, heartbreaking and ridiculous, there are the command performances, the Great American Novels but forever unwritten, untoppable, and so beautifully unaware.” 0 likes
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