Saturday, 1 September 2007

A Review - "Nigella Lawson, a biography" by Gilly Smith

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across this book listed on Amazon. (I think my original search started with "I wonder if Nigella has published anything new".) I was intrigued. I'd never heard of it, though, so wondered if it was just a tabloid hatchet job. Did I want to feed the bank balance of a tabloid nasty? Curiosity warred with my ethics. My LBYM side kicked in and I bought a damaged copy (bent cover) from an Amazon subsidiary for £1.36 plus p&p (total cost £4.11).

Long before she became famous as a TV cook, Nigella Lawson was one of my favourite writers. When I first came to London, she wrote a column for the Evening Standard. I vividly remember buying an early edition of the paper at Faringdon Station so that I could read her column on my way home from work. It was the only reason to buy that paper, there is no real news in the Evening Standard.

One column sticks in my mind, possibly the first of hers I ever read: a rant about how unfair it is that a man can walk home late at night from an evening out with friends without getting hassled, but a good looking woman (her) cannot. She vividly described catcalls yelled from cars and drunken remarks shouted at her as she walked passed a pub on her way home. All written in beautiful, chatty prose as if she was sitting on your couch sharing a bottle of wine.

From that one column, she won a fan for life. I didn't stalk her writing around the British press, but whenever I saw her byline, I tried to read whatever she had to say. When her first cookbook,
How to Eat, came out I couldn't put it down until I'd read it cover to cover. It is one of the dozen or so cookbooks that actually live in my kitchen (unlike the rest of the ~100 which live in the study upstairs). It is one of my main references: need to roast a turkey? Check Nigella for the cooking times. Chocolate cake? Use Nigella's recipe.

You know how older people always say they can remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated? Well, I remember where I was when I learned that Nigella's first husband, John Diamond died. I was on a plane, flying to Geneva for a skiing holiday. John was also a writer and his column in The Times was another of my regular reads.

Anyway, whilst all of this explains why I wanted to read this book, none of it reviews the actual book. So, onward....

In 250 pages, Gilly Smith attempts to capture the essence of Nigella's life and in my opinion, fails. Yes, you read an outline of Nigella's life, from her withdrawn childhood to her marriage to Charles Saatchi, and it is stuffed full of quotes liberated from articles written by Nigella or interviews conducted with her, but when Smith tries to analyse her - she fails.

Smith employs some of the conventional cliches in her attempt to understand Nigella and fails to understand that the cliches she has chosen do not apply. For instance, Nigella is Jewish so Smith's thought process must have been "lets throw in some Yiddish-isms and display what a sensitive author I am". There are several sections of the book where Smith is obviously showing off some new-found vocabulary in an attempt to look like a member of the in crowd. Problem: Nigella's family have been in Britain for about 200 years and are very assimilated - Yiddish is as alien to them as Swahili. Time and again, Smith tries to labour the "Jewish point" without reading her own words; Nigella is a non-practising Jew brought up in a non-observant household, who never even celebrated the festivals until after John was dying and requested a Seder (passover feast). She didn't set foot inside a synagogue until she was in her thirties. So you can't analyse this woman in the context of her family's religious/cultural heritage - because the one Smith is using isn't Nigella's.

The other theme that gets laboured is one of privilege and wealth. Sure, Nigella's mother was an heiress and her father a journalist turned politician. They had some well connected friends. However, there was no money left to squander on Nigella's generation. Nigella had to work her way through university waiting tables and, until she married Saatchi, needed a job to survive. She didn't get into Oxford by flashing the cash, either - you only get into Oxford by cold hard graft, which she did at a state-owned grammar school.

Another thing that annoys me: Nigella started out publishing before working on the literary section of the Sunday Times. We are told that she is extremely well read (and, I know there are literary references in the cookbooks), however there isn't one quote from one book review. What does she read? What type of fiction does she enjoy? Tell me!!! Apart from cookbooks, there is no mention of Nigella reading any type of book in the last 15 years. And this is the woman who spent her childhood buried in books.

I guess, when I read a biography or autobiography I want to know what the subject is like. I want to know what motivates them; what their hobbies are; how they relax; whether I have anything in common with them. The ultimate test: if they came to dinner, what would we talk about around the table? Smith fails to supply answers to those questions.

The quality of Smith's writing is uneven, particularly when it is juxtaposed with quotes taken from other sources. Even without the annoying Yiddishisms, etc, when Smith writes with her own voice it jars. She must have conducted hundreds of interviews and she uses them well, but the last two or three chapters are less about Nigella's life and more about Smith's opinion of her success and future as a food writer. They don't work.

To sum up, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give this book a 5.5. Buy it second hand.

- Pam

PS: If you want to check out Nigella's website, it's here:

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