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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

An Education

Lynn Barber

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To purchase An Education

Title: An Education
Author: Lynn Barber
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2009
Length: 172 pages
Availability: An Education - US
An Education - UK
An Education - Canada
  • An Education -- at least part of it -- was made into a film of the same title in 2009, directed by Lone Scherfig, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, and Alfred Molina

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Our Assessment:

B : quite engaging, though a bit too quick

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 19/6/2009 Deborah Orr
Independent on Sunday . 15/11/2009 Lesley McDowell
The Observer . 1/11/2009 Claire Hopley
The Scotsman . 9/7/2009 Alison Roberts
The Spectator A 24/6/2009 Cressida Connolly
Sunday Times . 21/6/2009 Wendell Steavenson
The Telegraph . 18/6/2009 Jane Shilling
The Telegraph . 5/7/2009 Anne Chisholm

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "It's quite peculiar, this celebrated journalist's memoir, and that is its peculiar charm. (...) Barber says her early experience of her schoolgirl affair taught her that people are "unknowable" and that this informed her ability to interview people well. Yet Barber interrogates herself very little. She finds herself unknowable too." - Deborah Orr, The Independent

  • "A compelling read." - Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday

  • "Grab the chance to read this entertaining memoir while it's being republished alongside Nick Hornby's film adaptation. When she describes her husband's final illness, this entertaining, artfully shaped memoir segues into a moving coda." - Claire Hopley, The Observer

  • "Barber's voice is of course hugely confident -- sometimes grumpy, often a bit snooty, very often funny and always extremely frank. Take this to the beach; and be grateful for feminism." - Alison Roberts, The Scotsman

  • "What makes Barber such an unfailingly enjoyable read is that she makes her own judgments about people, which means she often likes monsters or disdains saints. Her style is brisk to the point of breathless and so informal (a typical sentence is ‘Crikey.’) that the reader is flattered into feeling as if they were an intimate of hers (.....) This style characterises her memoir (.....) All of which makes An Education an absolutely marvellous read. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s too short." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "The journalist Lynn Barber is known for her acerbic features and interviews, and this memoir is no less candid, fun and down-to-earth. Written in a breezy vernacular (...) An Education reads like a gossip over coffee with a fabulously irreverent mother-in-law." - Wendell Steavenson, Sunday Times

  • "Lynn Barber’s trenchant memoir begins and ends with the unknowability of other people -- an unexpected theme for someone known as the "demon Barber" for the ferocious perspicacity of the interviews in which she takes apart her subjects as though stripping carcases." - Jane Shilling, The Telegraph

  • "(T)his short, breezily written memoir starts by recounting how she was seduced by a con man when she was still a schoolgirl and ends by describing in excruciating detail her much-loved husband’s illness and death. Her frankness, though, is perhaps as much artful as truthful. As she says at the outset, she has never been a slave to facts. (...) For all its black humour, this is a sad book. As well as being a cautionary tale about sex and class it is, in a small way, a tragedy of innocence lost." - Anne Chisholm, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lynn Barber's An Education is a quick memoir that highlights some of the stations of Lynn Barber's quite unusual life, from being an only child in a family of "first generation immigrants to the middle class" to going to Oxford, working at Penthouse, and establishing herself as a journalist (and interviewer). Two personal relationships also stand out: one with con-man Simon, who picked her up when she was sixteen and with whom she remained involved for several years, and then with David, the man she married. (It is the Simon-episode that the film, An Education, revolves around.)
       The Simon-affair is particularly fascinating, from the fact that her parents -- who had always drilled the importance of education into her -- went along with it, to how Simon got away with it (and all his cons) for so long. It did, however, provide Barber with 'an education' (or several): there were weekend get-aways to: "Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges, and often Sark in the Channel Islands", and he did expose her to a great deal, from fine dining to culture. She doesn't seem to have liked him all that much, however (though one imagines that also has to do with the lingering resentment of how he took advantage of her).
       Though they spent many nights together, Simon did wait until she turned seventeen before claiming her virginity. Her description of how that went sums up their relationship pretty well:

He wanted to do a practice run with a banana -- he had brought a banana specifically. I said 'Oh for heaven's sake !' and told him to do it properly. He talked a lot about how he hoped Minn would do Bubl the honour of welcoming him into her home. Somewhere in the middle of the talking, he was inside me, and it was over. I thought, 'Oh well, that was easy. Perhaps now I can get a proper boyfriend.'
       Instead, she kept going out with him, and almost married the bum (who turned out to be even sleazier than expected). Remarkably (and very fortunately) she managed to avoid that fate and to escape to Oxford -- armed with her Simon-education, which she did acknowledge had taught her a few things (including, for example, curing her of any craving for sophistication). However, it also taught her not to trust people:
I came to believe that other people -- even when you think you know them well -- are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.
       Oxford didn't provide much of the education one might expect -- after graduating the only suggestion the Oxford careers office came up with for her was: "that I should join the prison service and hope to be fast-tracked into becoming a prison governor one day" -- but she did get around ("I was wildly promiscuous [...] I probably slept with about fifty men in my second year") and apparently had a decent time. She only really hooked up with the love of her life after graduating, however; their life together (until his illness and death), to which the last chapter of the memoir is devoted, seems to have been a very happy and fairly conventional one (with a few interesting housing episodes).
       Barber's first real job was at Penthouse, which she joined right as it was starting up, and she provides amusing stories of what that was like. As literary editor (among her many titles) she got to deal with quite a few excellent writers; Penthouse may have been best-known for its nudes, but also ran a lot of articles. Long articles:
     The main requirement for all articles in Penthouse was that they had to be long. We ran Q-and-A interviews that rambled on for 30 pages. We had book extracts that were longer than many books. We ran 6,000-word theatre reviews and as much as Kingsley Amis ever wanted to write about booze. The point was that the words pages were printed in black and white and therefore cheap, and the girl pages were printed in colour which in those days was staggeringly expensive.
       Barber's later career is also of interest (though she does harp on a bit much about her many awards ...), and there are amusing anecdotes and observations throughout.
       Overall, however, the memoir is something of a mixed bag -- a few highlights, a lot glossed over -- and occasionally feels very rushed. Barber has had quite a few remarkable experiences, and she describes some of them well -- the Simon-episode is fascinating -- but it's far from an in-depth memoir. While she appears to open herself up a great deal, she's also careful what she presents, and how (and that reminder that she thinks people are "ultimately unknowable" is hard to overlook).
       An interesting (and often entertaining), if not entirely satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 February 2010

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An Education: Reviews: An Education - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British journalist Lynn Barber was born in 1944.

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© 2010 the complete review

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