Book Review

Audiobook Review: The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher (2016)

Read by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd

4/5 stars

This is an unusual, short memoir where the witty, self-deprecating observations that Carrie Fisher was known for sit at odds with the stories she discloses. One of the lingering thoughts I had after finishing it was ‘Why write this?’ (other than the obvious: books = money). It is, however, a fascinating book, and there was something powerful about hearing her provide her own commentary on the journal segments that her daughter reads for this production.

The Premise:

During the filming of Star Wars in 1976, 19 year old Carrie Fisher decided to write down her thoughts in journals. Sometime in the early to mid 2010’s, the older Carrie Fisher ‘discovered’ the journals, and made the decision to publish them, adding in her current perspective on them, and her views on how the Star Wars universe transformed the trajectory of her life. While many may have expected a ‘behind the scenes of filming’ feel to the journals, the main focus (and the cause of so much controversy when The Princess Diarist was first published) is on her inner turmoil regarding the brief affair she had with co-star Harrison Ford. Though a short book, there is a lot packed into it: the revelation regarding Harrison Ford overshadowed everything else.

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My review:

The Princess Diarist was a really good book to listen to: I mainly had it on in the car on my commute to work, and I found it very accessible and easy to follow. It helped, I found, that Carrie Fisher was reading most of it: she was a talented, charismatic performer anyway, so having her read the ‘present day’ commentary meant it all felt natural, rather than scripted. The best way I can describe the experience is that it was as though she was sitting next to me, having a conversation about some weird and wonderful moments of her life.

The sections focused on dealing with the intense public attention that Star Wars brought to her life were my favourite parts of the book. I mean, referring to fan conventions as ‘celebrity lap dances’ is outrageous, hilarious, and oddly on-point. The conflicted attitude towards events like this, and ‘celebrity culture’ as a whole, is rather poignant: Fisher clearly loved her fans, admired their dedication (hours of queuing for a few seconds of interaction), yet felt uncomfortable about how invasive it could be. Pictures being taken that she didn’t like, but couldn’t control; people needing her to ‘be’ a certain way (often, like the character of Leia); having surreal conversations where strangers have snippets of information about you and feel comfortable talking freely about them.

These aspects of the book were sharply and wittily presented, with Fisher taking up the role she often did in her life and in writing: a narrator-protagonist of Hollywood. She was both an insider and an outsider in that weird world, existing within its boundaries but close enough to the edge that she could look at it fairly objectively and relate her observations to the rest of us.

Inevitably resulting from that are some inspirational ideas or concepts to consider. This one is a particular favourite of mine:

“Do not let what you think they think of you make you stop and question everything you are.”

One of the great things about writers and public figures like Fisher is that their extraordinary experiences allow what they’re saying to seem more ‘natural’ and authoritative, rather than shallow ‘window sticker’ quotes. As someone who lived so relentlessly in the view of the world, she was inundated with comments from people about who she should be or how she should behave. We all experience that kind of self-consciousness and lack of confidence in ourselves, so hearing it said by someone else can (and was/is comforting).

The journals are a bit chaotic – which is to be expected, really. A young woman, acting in a space-opera film, away from home, experiencing the traumatic throes of unrequited and forbidden ‘love’. The writing in these passages, including the poetry, is achingly beautiful. Fisher’s talent for writing, for making unique ‘shapes’ from language building blocks, is so evident here.

“Thank you for being the snake in my grass, the thorn in my side, the pain in my ass, the knife in my back, the wrench in my works, the fly in my ointment. My Achilles’ heart. Caught in a whirlpool without an anchor, relaxing into it, calmly going under for one of many last times.” 

Again, what’s expressed here is quite a relatable situation, albeit one experienced in extraordinary circumstances. Many readers/listeners will have experienced intense and/or unrequited affection for someone, and felt overwhelmed by it, embarrassed and awkward in their presence. Looked at from this point of view, and publishing these journals seems understandable: exploring a ‘common’ experience through a heightened situation. Billie Lourd’s performance was very good in these sections: I got a sense of despair and disillusionment that the words conveyed.

In light of the #MeToo movement that has whipped up public consciousness of the dangerous situations that men and women in the entertainment industry (and beyond) find themselves in, The Princess Diarist remains a relevant read. As one of the few women working on Star Wars (on or off camera), Fisher drew the attention of various cast and crew aside from Harrison Ford.

“The crew was mostly men. That’s how it was and that’s pretty much how it still is. It’s a man’s world & show business is a man’s meal with women generously sprinkled through it like over-qualified spice.”

One incident she relates is particularly disturbing: it begins with Fisher being pressured into drinking alcohol at a party, and then finding herself bundled outside by a group of male crew members. It doesn’t end there, but the tone of the recollections changes. Up to this point, there’s horror implicit within (and linked to) the resigned ‘c’est la vie’ attitude (as though she’s saying, ‘this is just the reality of the entertainment industry’). Suddenly, it becomes very romanticised when a ‘knight in shining armour arrives’. Yet the young Carrie is still in the same vulnerable, intoxicated state so the idealised tone jars.

“If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond I shall be posthumorously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing.” 

That’s where the reason for releasing these journals becomes unclear to me. Fisher seemed to both harbour guilt about having an affair with a married man (so the book is a confession that leads to absolution), and want to highlight her vulnerability during that time, but without laying blame on Ford. It’s all so confused, and as there’s no real resolution to that uncertainty of perspective, it left me with a strange impression of it all. There’s no acknowledgement or awareness of the changes in tone, or the implications of what she’s disclosing about certain people.

Overall:

I would recommend The Princess Diarist, especially the audiobook version if you can access it or like audiobooks. The sharp observations of 2015/6 Carrie, the poignancy of feeling expressed in the journals, and the fantastic performance in the audiobook meant my experience of the book is largely positive. The confused remembrance of the ‘main event’ of the affair does leave me rather uncomfortable, but in some ways, this makes it all the more relevant to various cultural conversations.

 

*The Princess Diarist, written and performed by Carrie Fisher, was published in the UK by Transworld, an imprint on Penguin Random House in 2016

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