Julie West's Reviews > An Education

An Education by Lynn Barber
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Feb 19, 10

bookshelves: sbg
Read from February 08 to 17, 2010

Much of this book's appeal for me was that a number of the author's experiences and perceptions mirrored my own, following a similar path a decade later: elocution lessons, an isolated upbringing, the terrors of fitting in at school, breaking free from home, falling in love, setting up home in London and embarking on a career.

Writing in a punchy, upbeat style, the author surveys the full span of her life with humour and more than a touch of irony. I was captivated by her account of her time at Oxford where academic study firmly took second place behind the all important quest of discovering the opposite sex! It is as honest as it is shocking that the author admits to having calculatedly studied men and experimented with them in quantity. Strangely, it would be abhorrent if the roles were reversed and the narrator were male.

In good fairy story tradition all the "research" culminates in the author meeting the love of her life. Away from the artificiality of Oxford undergraduate life she quickly recognises her need for a permanent stable relationship. She rationalises that all that is good in her husband to be compensates for all that is bad in her so there is a resolution of sorts. They set up home impecuniously and in bohemian fashion seemingly without a care in the world and from that point everything seems to fall into place.

The main focus of the narrative then becomes the development of the author's career. This developes at breakneck speed from quite unpromising beginnings working with Penthouse magazine in its very early days. The author tells her story with scarcely a backwards glance seeming hardly to draw breath between adventures.

Lynn Barber gives the impression that her career took off because she had a lucky break: the publication she went to work for enjoyed rapid success and she grew with it. But whether Penthouse succeeded because of Lynn Barber or Lynn Barber succeeded because of Penthouse is not made entirely clear. Certainly she does not appear to have planned her career in any conventional way and yet in time she became an award winning journalist and clearly enjoyed the fruits of her success.

What is apparent is that the author enjoyed a happy and stable marriage. Not only was her husband in a complimentary occupation he was also more home based and more domestically inclined. This freed her to develop as a journalist and to travel. Although she hints at discomfort experienced during the six years or so that she took off to stay at home with her two young children, frustratingly she declines to go into any detail about how practically they coped during those years or indeed in the years that followed her return to full time journalism. This is a pity and a missed opportunity. Many readers will be left wondering just how it was done - what kind of support was required?

Chapter 2 is the depiction of the relationship that springs up between the author in her late teens and a Jewish con man. It is the least credible section not least because the relationship was fostered and encouraged by the author's parents. And yet it is what inspired the book.

We see the author as a teenager on the verge of rebellion keeping her parents in the dark. Simon is portrayed as a villain, lying, stealing, mounting an organised campaign to deflower a schoolgirl. The author was complicit for a considerable time before taking action. Pragmatically she enjoys the attention, the opportunities for travel, dining out and generally socialising and doesn't want to blow the the whistle. She is learning about life and seeing the world; she is dazzled by an exotic beautiful red head that she meets in Bedford Square but soon realises that her beauty outshines her intellect.

When the truth is revealed, it is her parents that are diminished by the experience: their poor judgment encouraged the relationship. As a result the parents are blamed; they lose credibility and whatever parental control they had. Clearly this is no objective history. They are not allowed to learn from the experience in this narrative and we don't hear from them again until later when they are in their eighties. These parents were not much loved.

The author, in contrast, emerges relatively unscathed, if anything honed for action in another arena: at Oxford she cynically continues to use people for her own ends for some time to come. At the dawn of the permissive age this was perhaps to become typical behaviour but the author in retrospect seems apologetic for the shallowness of these years.

The bridge between home and university is awkward. Only her father's intervention persuades the headmistress to take her former star pupil back to take the Oxbridge entrance paper through the school. However, she was not permitted to attend the school again or to be taught by it. This is an nice, authentic historical touch. It shows that the author was considered a thoroughly bad influence but also that the values of the time were crushing and in need of updating.

The end of this book is moving without being mawkish; it is honest. It well depicts the progression of the illness that was to kill the author's husband. Events close in. The action moves from the international career arena to the intimate everyday details. The author describes how other things are thrown into relief: after the diagnosis there is the mutual discovery in middle age that neither likes foreign travel; that the husband is showing signs of ageing; the snatched holidays to Cornwall prior to his operation conjure up flashbacks of their visits to Cornwall years before when they were young and energetic in the prime of life with two small children.

To great effect the author's parents are brought back into the narrative, now in their eighties, living in comfortable retirement they represent a complication and a burden for the author, another thing to manage. They were successful in their way but it is the trappings of their success the author now begins to mourn, not their increasing infirmity: a source of comfort is stripped away from the author's grasp as she mourns the transformation of their idyllic country cottage garden (where she counted the fritillaries) as post sale, it is developed and "improved". Father in law features again, now transformed by the passage of time from powerful aristocratic man of influence that he was to the querulous old man he has become, alone and side lined by his son, who refuses to tell him of his illness.

There is a dramatic change of perspective in the book as the young couple that set out on life together after a charmed youth themselves develop and mature, becoming powerful figures in their respective fields, yet vulnerable at the end. The image of them in the garden sipping champagne on the hot summer's evening before he goes into hospital to start the treatment is particularly poignant.

There is a satisfying twist at the end when the photo used for the funeral order of service acquires a special significance. The author suspects the photo of her husband was taken by a lover that she was never aware of, and her belief in the love she believed they had shared wavers. In time however she learns there was no lover: that the one good photo of her late husband was simply taken innocently at a social gathering and sent to her by a well wisher. And so she recovers her belief in the life and love they had shared.

This was a very enjoyable read. I found it interesting and moving. It shows that an education provides a starting point and opportunities, but that life itself completes the process. After reading this book I would very much like to meet Lynn Barber and to talk with her about her life.

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Reading Progress

02/17/2010 page 100
50.25% "Much of the appeal of this book for me lies in the way in which the author's experiences and perceptions mirror my own. Very enjoyable."

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Siobhan (new)

Siobhan I started reading this on the train today and think it's very amusing!

Julie West but did you finish it?
When the film's out on DVD we must get it and see it!

message 3: by Siobhan (new)

Siobhan I did finish it and enjoyed it very much actually. I then missed the book club evening to share my thoughts on it though - oops!

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