Famous, Infamous Jane-Confusing Life a Real Workout

My Life So Far, by Jane Fonda. Random House, 600 pages, $26.95.

If ever a novelist was born to review a 600-page autobiography by Jane Fonda, I’m it.

Under any other circumstance, I would hold to the belief that a book review is no place for the first-person pronoun, but these are no ordinary circumstances. This is Jane. And Jane is stamped all over my life the way she’s stamped all over the lives of many, many people she has never met before.

It would be an overstatement to say that she was responsible for my parents’ divorce, but in the tiny microcosm of their marriage, the differences could be easily reduced to who was for Jane and who was against her. My father, a free-thinking, mostly Democrat-voting sort of guy now in his early 70′s, would pound his head against a table to think that I’d spent the weekend reading Jane’s book, My Life So Far. He’s one of those people (and there are many of them) who would have to be completely wrapped in electrical tape before he could be dragged into a theater playing one of Jane’s movies. My mother, on the other hand, is 67-exactly four months older than Jane. Like Jane, she had big sunglasses, suede mini-skirts, two children and three husbands. When I called to tell her I was getting an advance copy of the book to review, she asked if she could sit next to me while I read it so that I could tear off every page and hand it to her the second I was finished. In short, I can think of no other public figure that my father genuinely hates, and I can think of no other public figure with whom my mother more closely identifies. You see the problem.

The first time I made my own connection to Jane, I was in junior high and I saw her play Lillian Hellman in the movie Julia. The one scene in which I remember her writing (not an activity that translates to film in a particularly interesting way), she threw her typewriter through a window in a moment of frustration. I thought, Oh, yes-I want to be a writer like that!

But it wasn’t until February of 1982 that Jane moved into my life for good. I was a freshman in college and I was fat, having packed on more than would seem possible in one semester away at school. My mother lent me her copy of Jane Fonda’s new exercise book. You have to remember, this was before the dawn of exercise enlightenment. If you wanted to be skinny, you stopped eating-you didn’t get down on the floor and do crunches. I read all the text and studied the pictures carefully. Then I got off the couch and started to scissor my legs back and forth. I didn’t stop.

My connection to the Jane Fonda workout videos was both deep and long. When you spend an hour a day listening to a movie star telling you that you should work harder and stick with it and be proud of yourself, you start to think you have some sort of relationship with that movie star. It would not be a stretch to say that I was very bonded to Jane while understanding that she wasn’t bonded to me. She cared about my muscle tone, and so I wanted to be supportive of her interests. I came to love her films. I appreciated her activism. I even read a copy of Roger Vadim’s book, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda, behind the cash register at the bookstore where I was working. I never once mentioned these things to my father.

All of this is to say that your reviewer is not objective. Even though I haven’t done a workout tape or seen a Fonda movie in many years, I fell on this assignment with absolute glee. Hadn’t it been ages since I’d caught up with Jane?

And so it gives me no pleasure to tell you that My Life So Far is not a gorgeous piece of work. The writing is often flat and the dialogue is stilted. Very few moments in these 600 pages read as real scenes in which the reader can experience the action with any sense of immediacy. The parts that one might expect to be shocking or exciting (say, for example, the fact that the same husband who wrote a book about her was constantly bringing home other women-often hookers-so that they could have threesomes) are submitted like an itemized deduction on a very long tax form: She did it. She didn’t like it. She wanted to please him. Next.

While I read the book with a great sense of compulsion, anxious to hear all the details, many of the stories had a rehashed quality, as if Jane had dealt with each of them over and over again-with friends, in therapy, with her husbands or her children-and now that they’ve been analyzed to death and completely processed and solved, she’s decided to throw the bones to the reader. And of course they’ve been processed and solved-that’s life-but it isn’t a compelling way to present an autobiography. Often she includes not only the way things worked out, but the way she would’ve liked things to work out. We get the disappointing thing her mother said to her and then, as a bonus, what it would have been much nicer if her mother had said. She tells us what she told her husband at the time and then throws in what she really should have told him had she been more honest. Alas, it keeps the reader at bay.

Another problem is that the narrative is interrupted with quotations nearly to the point of insanity. Each of the 42 chapters (plus preface and epilogue) begins with at least one and often two epigraphs. Quotes are sprinkled so liberally throughout the text that at times I felt like I was reading a term paper that a student had tried to fatten up. The sources range from Thomas Edison to Carl Jung to Mother Teresa to James Baldwin. She manages to connect an Emily Dickinson poem to her anxiety about weight. It could be that Jane Fonda is the most prodigious reader since Susan Sontag, and that she possesses a truly remarkable ability to recall everything she’s ever read and get her hands on the exact sentence she needs to make her point, or it could be that she’s trying to make herself sound very serious by backing up her life with source material.

In the same way I understand the importance of trying to remove one’s self from a book review (I have failed miserably), I also understand the importance of reviewing the book rather than the person who is writing it, and here I fear I will fail again. The truth is, I’m much more interested in the choices Jane made than how she put her book together.

For all its privilege and beauty, her childhood was almost Dickensian in its sadness. Her mother cut her own throat when Jane was 12 (Jane discovered the cause of death by reading about it in a movie magazine), and her legendary father was a block of ice.

She went on to be both fabulously famous and infamous, a leader in everything she tried her hand at, and all the while she was coming home to her miserable marriages with miserable men who treated her like a doorstop. A great leader of the feminist movement looking the other way while her husband screws the baby-sitter? The captain of the health and fitness craze vomiting up her food? The spokeswoman for the rights of girls leaving off her own baby girl to go and discover America? This is all very confusing.

Her decision to marry Ted Turner is not just confusing, but genuinely baffling. But then it would take a writer of Nabokov’s skill to make that guy seem charming on the page.

I wish the book contained more discussion of her life as an actress, but aside from the time she spent working with Lee Strasberg, her career gets fewer pages than it deserves.

Both Jane Fonda and her text are most alive when she’s dealing with Vietnam. In these sections, she has a clear and noble mission: She wants to stop the war. For a while, she manages to focus her enormous energy not on her man, but on her cause. In her quest to end the fighting, she makes some mistakes of stupendous proportions (mistakes my father will not forgive her for)-but while I cringed at her adventures in Hanoi, I greatly admire the fearlessness of her efforts and the passion of her convictions.

Whatever circumstances life throws at her or she chooses to bring down on her own head, she just keeps pushing forward. Again and again, she springs into action when it might have been better to wait and think things through, but it’s that constant drive to leap that makes hers a compelling life and makes this an interesting book, even if it is bloodless at times. While she possessed little ability to manage her own pain, she stayed deeply attuned to the pain of the world. One gets the feeling it would have been easier for her to stop a war than to eat a normal meal or skip a day of exercise. I wonder if some of her problems could have been solved if she’d listened to her own workout tapes every now and then. She could have benefited like the rest of us from that voice of constant encouragement cheering her along.

Jane Fonda has divided her life and her book into three acts, each one lasting about 30 years; at 67, she’s well into Act III. She’s now working on her relationship with God, being a grandmother and running a program for teens in the state of Georgia, where she lives. For all of her mistakes, her successes and her many attempts at everything, she remains a talented, passionate and intelligent work in progress. She deserves a fourth act and even a fifth- it would make her story almost unbearably long, but I think she could use the extra time.

Ann Patchett is the author of four novels. Her most recent book is Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (HarperCollins).