If there has been a more candid, insightful, empathetic, intelligent, endearing, poignant and surprising work of non-fiction published in the past few decades than My Judy Garland Life, I haven't read it. The closest thing might be Alain de Botton's book on Proust, but where he serves us up with nuggets of companionable profundities, British novelist and journalist Susie Boyt yanks truths out of her messy life and Judy Garland's messier career like teeth, roots dripping with awkward candour.
If you're not reading carefully, you might wonder if Boyt is a little off, actually. In the same opening paragraph where she declares her lifelong love for Judy - not admiration, not devotion or obsession, but love - she says she was so sensitive as a girl that her pity extended to piles of unlikely-to-be-sold sale items in bins by store checkout lines.
But pay attention to her prose. There are none of the excessive bits of punctuation you might expect from the sort of fan who decided to devote 22 months of her life meditating on what her heroine means to her, none of the clipped syntax from which you might infer that sort of unattractive breathlessness familiar from conversations with devotees of any sort.
This is thoughtful, tempered writing, the product not only of decades of interest in a celebrity, but years of introspection on the nature, purpose, value and results of one example of the sort of attachment millions of us feel to famous people we've never met.
Every time someone famous dies unexpectedly, the media ululate with chatter and speculation about the relationship between fans and their idols. But those deaths only throw to the surface something that is there everywhere and always. It's the fuel that powers our cultural industries and the fluff that pads many of our lives' sharpest edges.
This is the stuff that Boyt writes about: the holes in our lives filled by artists, performers and princesses, the reflections of ourselves we turn to them for, the things they teach us by example or counter-example, the casings they become to contain bits of ourselves that would otherwise fly apart into incomprehensibility.
"As a young child it seemed that all anyone ever said to me was: 'You must toughen up. You mustn't take everything to heart so. You really ought to try to control your feelings more or you just won't have a happy life,' " she writes early on in the book. "This then, I learned, was the job of childhood, the work of adolescence. If you could only gain mastery of your emotional world, why, you would be set up for ever! But how to do it? Nobody said."
So she turned to Judy, whose life and failures and successes and voice seemed to say the opposite. "Her central credo," Boyt writes, "and it always, always comes to me as her voice begins to swell, is that to be the person with the strongest feelings in life is to be the best," and that "the opposite of good feelings are not bad feelings, but no feelings."
As a result, she has been able to chart a course between these two precipices, not embarrassed by her deep and sometimes soaring feelings, but not a victim of them, either. She tells the story of a boyfriend in university who dies in a fall - 20 years to the day after Judy's death - and the months she spent in profound mourning, during which, every day, loath to impinge for too long upon friends or relatives, she would watch a PBS special called Judy Garland: The Concert Years.
"No one else, it seemed, knew how I felt and could bear it, let alone face me with a heart frank and sweet," she writes. "This is what the world sometimes is, Judy sang to me; sick, rotten and sharper than swords, and it absolutely shouldn't be allowed, but nowhere is there more life than the sphere you currently inhabit. There is a sort of ancient private human dignity in what is happening to you, however squalid and desperate you feel."
There are limits to how much someone in your life can give you at times like these. They have their own lives, after all. But there are, Boyt discovers again and again in this book, no limits of time or propriety to what she can demand of Judy.
Boyt gets very specific things from Judy, things she needs, but the relationship she describes, though more focused and more considered than average, is common to anyone whose emotional or even practical experience through art and culture is broader than what they have access to personally, which is pretty much all of us.
Whenever you wonder what Judge Judy would say, or find some comfort or justification in your own extreme emotional reaction to the beauty of a chair by doing a quick mental check with the antique-shopping sisters from Women in Love, you're experiencing a version of what Boyt is talking about. People have found meaning in the arts for millennia. Celebrity culture, far from cheapening the experience, has personalized it and, as a result, deepened it.
By its end, My Judy Garland Life has evolved - slowly, modestly, quirkily - into nothing less than a full accounting not only of why thousands lined the streets for Rudolph Valentino's funeral procession, why there continue to be tens of thousands who are more devoted to Elvis than to anyone other than, sometimes, their immediate families, why 1.6 million people applied to attend Michael Jackson's memorial service, but even part of what's going on when 14-year-old girls paper their walls with bits of Jonas Brothers paraphernalia.
But this is not a book that any academic worth his turgidity would call cultural analysis. This is one woman's story, claiming nothing that is not hers. There are no conclusions, no extrapolations of her experience to account for general societal trends. She can't even claim to be an everywoman - in addition to being a successful novelist and journalist, she is Lucian Freud's daughter, Emma Freud's cousin and Sigmund Freud's great-granddaughter.
This is a very particular story. It is only Susie Boyt's singular facility with the details of her own life, her ability to inspire her readers' own interpolations through canny juxtapositions of anecdote and musing, bits of Judy's life with apparently dissimilar bits of hers, that makes this affecting autobiography not only of general interest but of universal significance.
Bert Archer is a Toronto writer about many things. He plans to respect Judy Garland a little more than he has done heretofore.