She sat on the bed, the gun in her lap. Everything seemed hopeless. “What’s the point?” she thought.
Only a few months earlier, Joan Rivers had everything she ever wanted: fame and fortune, the job of her dreams, a loyal husband, a loving child, a lavish estate—and a future that beckoned with enticing possibilities. After years of struggle, she had not only succeeded as a comedian, but made history on the newly launched FOX Network as television’s first and only female late-night talk show host.
And now she’d lost it all. In May 1987 the First Lady of Comedy was fired from her job, and publicly humiliated. Her husband, Edgar — unable to bear his own failure as her manager and producer—killed himself. Their daughter, Melissa, blamed her mother for his death.
Phil Collins rode a similar pendulum. He spent the ’70s in relative obscurity, the man behind the kit in what was then a progressive rock band and something of a niche act. In 1981, he launched his solo career with the still-iconic “In the Air Tonight” and hit after hit followed, thirteen in the top ten by decade’s end. Collins was everywhere—guest-starring on Miami Vice, flying from London to Philadelphia to perform at both Live Aid concerts in a single day, producing the albums of Eric Clapton, and Howard Jones and Adam Ant. It’s been said that in the ’80s, he was second only to Michael Jackson in popularity. And then the ’90s dawned, and in much the same way that it did for the singer in “Duchess,” everything came crashing down.
It’s hard to catch hold of just why people came to hate Phil Collins so passionately and so particularly. It wasn’t only because his music was inescapable on the radio. Nor was it just because the songs themselves were so sappy. It was also him. He was a sore loser, frequently calling reviewers personally when they criticized his work. He was obnoxious, once remarking that he would leave England if a Labour government was elected so as not to pay taxes. And, despite his romantic songwriting, he was a heel, as per the expletive-laden facsimile he sent his second wife, Jill, in 1994, a missive which has gone down in Phil Collins–lore as “the divorce FAX.” (Collins has always denied ending his marriage by FAX.)
I didn’t want you to know,
but I took pictures of your room before I left
traced my jagged fingertips across the soft spots
the places where we touched
before there was a ghost in the bed
The conceit is that the author, Therese Oneill, has had it up to here with the kind of dreamy-eyed young woman who’s always got her nose stuck in a Jane Austen novel and who wishes she could live her life not in the feminist here and now, but in that bygone era of “chivalry and honor, gilded beauty and jolly servants.” Oneill decides she will take one of these girls in hand and tell her some home truths. “Most of the things you love about the 19th century aren’t real, child,” she tells her. “They’re the creations of gracious hosts who tidy up the era whenever you visit through art, books, or film.”
She proposes an extended field trip to the era — which she expands to include everything from Austen through the Victorians — so she can reveal to her besotted pal the down and dirty truth about matters from menstruation to childbirth, clothing to cooking, social life to sex, and thus cure her from binge-watching the latest iteration of “Pride and Prejudice.” What a nasty world she shows her charge, illustrating it with advertisements, photographs and artwork of the period.
The novel’s far-flung peregrinations give it a certain shapelessness, but its power lies in its vibrant and arresting imagery, resonant themes and sense of intellectual ferment. In his extraordinary ability to convey his characters’ emotions as they take in the universe’s immensity, Pipkin captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies and the “implacable cartwheeling of worlds slow and indifferent.”