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Claire Tomalin’s strengths apparently come in industrial strength: a childhood steeped in culture (and parental disunity); a hugely developed intellect (her Cambridge First was inevitable); decades of success at a catalogue of high profile roles in literary journalism and editing; enormous energy and a capacity for prodigious and relentless hard work; five highly respected biographies (including Pepys & Mary Wollstonecraft)… And so it goes on.
These intellectual strengths have perhaps given her the dignified resilience in the face of tragedy. The death of her serially unfaithful husband Nicholas Tomalin when she was 40; the heart-breaking suicide of her exceptionally gifted golden daughter Susanna at the age of 22; a baby boy dead at 3 weeks (the coldest thing she’s ever touched); her only son disabled by spina bifida – just one of these would utterly destroy most of us. She describes the tragedies with elegance and not a shred of self-pity and her restrained treatment of bearing grief is extraordinarily moving.
But she does not want to be defined by these misfortunes. Work is her life-blood (‘Work Work Work’ is what drives her) and as she moves through her immensely successful career, her litany of friends and colleagues (and the frequent lists can be rather tedious) sounds like a Who’s Who of the literary world, sprung in large part from the inter-related network of high-flying Oxbridge graduates. But these names recreate the literary times.
Tomalin looks back on a working life spanning more than sixty years with all its social changes. That is interesting in itself, but her personal story (as in her biographies) makes the whole hugely involving. The story of her father coming to England and of the ultimately tragic marriage between him and Tomalin’s talented musician-composer mother would make a brilliant biography by itself. At 84 Tomalin says she’ll be beginning another book as soon as she’s finished this one. I’m sure she will – and I look forward to her finishing it.
Penelope Wilton is a highly appropriate reader with her perfect English voice, but I would have like a bit more vigour, a quality I imagine Tomalin possesses in spadefuls. The narration didn't need spadefuls, but just a little more vigour and variation.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
A biographer's autobiography makes for fascinating reading. Claire Tomalin attempts to recount the past 84 years of her life to the best of her ability, revealing tragic losses without self-pity, and an enduring spirit.
From an unstable childhood, moving from place to place during the war, with her family living across several countries, to having an unstable marriage. She describes her unusual relationship with her first husband, the renowned journalist Nick Tomalin, who was killed while covering the Yom Kippur war in 1973. His constant fleeting from his family to other women, and abusive behaviour is dark and quite a difficult read. In this instance, Tomalin appears to be stuck in a pattern of staying with her abuser for the sake of her children, a common occurrence in the 1960's. In between the chaos of her life, she loses a baby only one month old and has another who is permanently disabled.
In the same way, the dark, inexplicable suicide of her youngest daughter is laid bare, but out of it comes a change of direction of life dimension as Claire's vocation as a literary biographer floods in to fill the gap. These are, ironically, the most touching and well-written scenes. Through her own writings of women such as Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charles Dickens' affair with Ellen Ternan, we see Tomalin's own creativity and resilience. She copes because she must, and because she can.
The literary name dropping is everywhere because it is woven into the huge patchwork quilt of her long life. The candour of her resentment for the Murdoch empire is matched by the awe and admiration she has for Harold Evans and her mother.
One of the final scenes, in which she describes her father's great grandchildren dancing unknowingly on the bed, where he himself lay dead in his coffin only hours before, encapsulates the spirit of this beautiful book. A truly wonderful look into her life.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful