A POCKETFUL OF HAPPINESS, by Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant is a wonderful actor and, it seems, a rather wonderful (goofy, talented, loving) man. His new memoir, written in diary form, is about his terrific 38-year marriage-of-opposites to Joan Washington (he the eternal adolescent, star-struck optimist and gifted actor, she a sharp-tongued, no-nonsense and equally gifted dialect coach) and her painful death from cancer. (It is she who, while dying, instructs him to seek a “pocketful of happiness” every day after she is gone.)
Grant writes: “Am wondering, at the age of 63, and 11 months, if I am ever going to be a proper grown-up.” It’s not a question I asked myself while reading this book. He is so open, so filled with feelings and giddy with delight when loved, noticed and/or praised. (He not only writes about every exciting detail of being Oscar-nominated for his extraordinary performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” he then quotes various journalists and publicists about the charm and disarming candor of his enthusiasm. And then there are a few more quotes from friends who tell him how gifted and wonderful he is, as he ultimately does not win the Academy Award.) But he is too thrilled with all this to hold any of it against him, even as the Hollywood sections take away from the intensity of the book.
If Richard E. Grant were writing a review of this moving memoir, there would be many, many fond and admiring adjectives used to describe almost everyone who appears in the pages: witty, forthright, feisty, silky-soft, button-bright, hilarious, loving, generous, heartbreaking, warmhearted, inclusive, brilliant, sparky, amazing, charming, gilded, entertaining.
He lavishes these adjectives on his friends, famous and otherwise. Nigella Lawson seems as warm and lovely and sensitive as I’ve always thought she must be. Rupert Everett is gallant and delightful. So is King Charles, as it turns out. And Queen Camilla is thoughtful and generous. Cate Blanchett sends gardenias. Gabriel Byrne brings charm and kind attention. A frail Vanessa Redgrave provides ice cream and recites poetry. (It is a certain pleasure when Grant makes a very rare negative remark, usually about someone he tactfully does not name.)
There are two women at the center of this sweet and openhearted book. One is Joan Washington, whom we get to know as passionate and commanding, a great teacher, a wonderful mother, a smartass and a woman who understood and loved her husband, deeply. I would have been happy to go on reading about their life and their marriage, and even their shared adoration of their “longed-for, miracle, baby,” Olivia, who seems to be an impressive woman, very supportive of them both, during the fears and misery of Washington’s Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis and the “tsunami of grief” that Grant describes. I was not happy to read the details of Joan’s diagnosis and dying, but those sections of the book are genuine and compelling.
The woman in the book whom I could easily do without is … Barbra Streisand. Barbra Streisand comes off well: shy, thoughtful, wildly gifted and a genuine mensch. To be clear, I make no complaints about her, and neither Grant nor I criticize anything she does in this book. It is not her fault that Richard E. Grant has adored her since he wrote her a fan letter when he was 14. Not her fault that he commissioned a “two-foot-tall sculpture of Streisand’s face” for his garden. Not her fault that there are far too many pages about his adoration, his ruses to meet her and those meetings, in which — let me say again — she was the soul of grace.
I could have done without all of that, because, like Richard E. Grant, I just wanted more of the feisty, unvarnished, irritable, generous, wise, unimpressed Joan Washington. You cannot read this book and not miss her very much.
Amy Bloom’s most recent books are “Flower Girl” and “In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss.”
A POCKETFUL OF HAPPINESS | By Richard E. Grant | 336 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $28.99
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