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Fiction Family Life

Garbo Laughs

by (author) Elizabeth Hay

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Sep 2004
Family Life, Humorous, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2004
    List Price

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Winner of the Ottawa Book Award
Finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award
A Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year
A Quill & Quire Top Five Canadian Fiction Book of the Year
A Maclean’s Top Ten Book of the Year

Elizabeth Hay’s runaway national bestseller is a funny, sad-eyed, deliciously entertaining novel about a woman caught in a tug of war between real life and the films of the past. Inflamed by the movies she was deprived of as a child, Harriet Browning forms a Friday-night movie club with three companions-of-the-screen: a boy who loves Frank Sinatra, a girl with Bette Davis eyes, and an earthy sidekick named after Dinah Shore. Into this idiosyncratic world, in time with the devastating ice storm of 1998, come two refugees from Hollywood: Harriet’s Aunt Leah, the jaded widow of a screenwriter blacklisted in the 1950s, and her sardonic, often overbearing stepson, Jack. They bring harsh reality and illuminate the pull of family and friendship, the sting of infidelity and revenge, the shock of illness and sudden loss. Poignant, brilliant, and delightfully droll, Garbo Laughs reveals how the dramas of everyday life are sometimes the most astonishing of all.

About the author

A former CBC Radio host, interviewer and documentary maker in Winnipeg, Yellowknife and Toronto, Elizabeth Hay spent eight years in New York where a profound longing for home propelled her to write Captivity Tales. In a poetic blend of personal narrative, biography, history and literary fiction, she tells the stories of other Canadians who came to New York and their experiences away from home. She is the author of three other books: The Only Snow in Havana, Crossing the Snow Lines, and Small Change. She lives in Ottawa.

Elizabeth Hay's profile page


  • Nominated, Governor General's Literary Award

Excerpt: Garbo Laughs (by (author) Elizabeth Hay)

Kenny lay awake in the smallest room in the house. It had a narrow bed, a narrow desk, and a cupboard-closet that started partway up the wall. In the dark he could make out his desk covered in books – including his bible, the movie guide of 1996 – and his clothes hanging from a hook on the open cupboard door. With his dad he had gone to a used–clothing store and bought the oversized brown–and–white checked–tweed sports jacket and the red–and–pink tie and the long-sleeved blue shirt, his gangster outfit, and his dad had let him borrow, indefinitely, his black fedora. From Bolivia. His dad was a traveller.

Kenny loved Frank Sinatra. His mom – he couldn’t believe this – thought Marlon Brando was better.

“Who’s better?” he’d asked her.

“Not again,” she said.

“No, wait. Just this time. Who’s better? Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando?”

“Are you ready for this?” she said. “Can you take it? I’d have to say Marlon Brando.”

“You’re crazy, you’re nuts. I ­can’t believe what I’m hearing.”

She laughed, as one nut laughs with another, since she too wore her movie heart on her sleeve. “He’s a better actor. He’s better-looking. Which ­isn’t to say I ­don’t like Frank Sinatra. I do. At least, I like the young Frank Sinatra when he looked like Glenn Gould. He was an awful thug when he got older.”

Kenny turned to Dinah, who lived down the street and never minded his questions and always answered them to his liking. “Who do you like better, Frank Sinatra or Marlon Brando?”

“Frank,” she said.

“Me too.” He was very excited. “You think he’s a good singer?”

“The best.”

“My mom says Marlon Brando is better.”

“Marlon Brando is good.”

“But he’s not better than Frank Sinatra?”

“Frankie,” said Dinah, “is divine.” But Dinah had always gone for skinny, serious, temperamental guys, until recently.

They were in the middle days of November, and all the hesitations of early fall, the tentative snowfalls and bewitching spells of balminess, had given way to sudden cold. From under the covers, in the pale green light that came through the curtains, Kenny heard sounds – soft sounds ”– that froze the blood in his veins. There was tapping, sawing, tiny running feet on the porch roof outside his window. Rats. He knew it would be hard for a rat to walk up the wall, but in the night anything was possible. Then water, flowing water. Then scratching. Bugs were in the walls. Big-eyed, hairy, losing their grip. He heard one land, very softly, on the windowsill beside his head and was about to call out when something else, something hard, slapped against a window.

It sounded like Jean Simmons slapping Marlon Brando across the face.

It worked. After that it was quiet.

Frankie was good in that movie, and Frankie hated Marlon so Kenny hated him too. Jean Simmons was pretty nice; though, on the whole, he had to say he preferred Vivian Blaine.

He closed his eyes. For a while he pictured the fight, Marlon cracked over the head with a chair, Jean Simmons drunk and funny and throwing punches. He wondered if Havana was really like that. His dad would know. Then Big Julie was rolling dice in the sewer and Nathan Detroit was eating Mindy’s cheesecake with a fork.

In the morning he opened his eyes when his mom opened the curtains and he said, “Let’s watch Guys and Dolls.

“Why not Take Me Out to the Ball Game? You ­haven’t seen that one yet.”

“Is Frankie in it?”

“Of course,” she said.


Three nights later the slow, searching sound of a taxi came up the wet street and stopped directly below Kenny’s window. A door slammed, the taxi pulled away, and then Lew Gold was heading up the steps and Kenny was heading down. His sister was on his heels.

Their house was two storeys high and made of yellow brick. The wood trim in the hallway was American chestnut, a tree wiped out by blight in the 1920s. What remained of the old forests was inside. Everything outside had come inside, even the movies. The banister Kenny never bothered to hold on to was American chestnut too, golden brown in colour, but the steps themselves were white pine from the forests of white pine that used to grow where this house was standing. Lew’s grandfather had built the house in 1928; after he died it passed out of the family, until last spring, when the grandson had the pleasure of buying it back.

Lew came through the door, and then what a tangle of big and little limbs there was. What a scene of affection. He looked so tanned and lighthearted, so eager and beloved and beaming, that Harriet, standing in the living-room doorway, couldn’t resist. She said, “Something unpleasant happened while you were gone.”

Doña,” he smiled, reaching over the kids to take into his arms his northern-eyed, meatless-on-principle, strangely yearning wife. “I’ve missed you,” he said. And the gift, wrapped in a piece of newspaper in his shirt pocket, got pressed a little flatter.

It was late – a Sunday night – but he could tell by the look in her eye that she was still under the influence of her Friday-­night movie. A certain distancing look she directed his way that made him feel he was blocking her view. You’re a better door than a window, he heard her thinking, why don’t you sit down and remove your hat? Then she would be alone again with Sean Connery or Gene Kelly or Jeff Bridges or Cary Grant. The list was endless. He had been gone for two weeks, to distant parts, and she had spent it with who was it this time? A glance at the video box on top of the tv gave him his answer: Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ball Game. How could a man compete?

Editorial Reviews

“A novel so subtle and so wonderfully layered that it resembles a black-and-white movie of a certain era, full of elegance, aura and wit. . . . Brilliant. . . . Breathtaking.” —Globe and Mail

"From start to finish, this book is perfect, and as lovely to behold as it is beautifully written.” —The Guardian (UK)

“Outstanding—deft and compassionate and bittersweet. . . . About community, in all its guises; about family, old friends, and cherished foes.” —Bill Richardson
“Fully alive with people you want in your life. . . . Occasionally a novel comes along with a flavour so unique and beguiling that a reader thinks, ‘This one is unforgettable—I’ll have it forever.’ . . . That’s Garbo Laughs.” —National Post

“Think Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo meets Dorothy Parker as channelled by John Irving.” —NOW (four-star review)

“Elizabeth Hay’s novel is an anatomy of all kinds of love. . . . Full of Hay’s off-centre wisdom and bull’s-eye psychological accuracy.” —Katherine Ashenburg

“Dreamy, moving, frequently hilarious novel. . . . Startlingly original.” —Maclean’s

“A sparkling demonstration of Hollywood’s hold on our fantasies—and its awkward fit with our earthbound selves.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Sophisticated and intelligent, fresh and endlessly inventive.” —Quill & Quire (starred review)

“[Hay] has a delightful deadpan wit, the kind that sneaks up on you.” —New York Times Book Review

“Thumbs up for Garbo Laughs! Four-star novel celebrates love, film, and love of film.” —Ottawa Citizen

“Innovative in its reach and a stylistic delight, Garbo Laughs is endlessly engaging. Oscar for Best Novel.” —Terry Griggs

“Imaginative, droll, and incisive, Hay’s profound tale of attempted escape and accepted responsibility, of found joy and dreaded sorrow, deftly explores the dangers and benefits of fantasy.” —Booklist (starred review)

“There aren’t enough adjectives to describe Garbo Laughs. The book is, quite simply, wonderful. It is inventive, intelligent, polished and enchanting. And you won’t be able to put it down. . . . Garbo Laughs is both beautifully imagined and sophisticated, a multi-faceted chronicle that holds the reader in a state of pure admiration. Hay is engaging and incisive. . . . Bittersweet, richly entertaining and deeply moving.” —London Free Press

“A beautiful story of love and loss. With wit and sympathy, Elizabeth Hay superimposes the world of film perfectly on the life of Harriet Browning. A novel that should be read and re-read.” —Jury citation, Governor General’s Award

“A gracefully written novel, mapping out the patterns of tensions and release in a family whose members are best able to express their love and disappointment through the films of the past.” —Publishers Weekly

Garbo Laughs, written in Hay’s by now distinctively understated voice, gives us her literary talent in full, extravagant bloom. . . . [It] finds a pitch-perfect balance between comedy and sadness.” —Vue Weekly (Edmonton)

“Thoughtful, smart, sardonically funny.” —Toronto Star

“You don’t have to be a film buff to appreciate this finely crafted, poignant and emotionally resonant novel. . . . Absolutely delightful.” —Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“With meticulous language and subtle comedy, Elizabeth Hay creates a humane portrait of people whose passionate nostalgia for the fictions of the silver screen both cushion and illumine their lives.” —Joan Barfoot

“Hay’s forte is creating character and then establishing fierce but understated bonds between them. . . . This could easily become a Canadian classic.” —Catherine Gildiner

Garbo Laughs is a summer house of a novel, one through which we move with languid ease and pleasure, never wanting the season to end.” —Raleigh News & Observer

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