Sunday, May 1, 2011

John by Cynthia Lennon - Review

Not long before John Lennon's death, his first wife Cynthia published a memoir of their marriage called A Twist of Lennon, now out of print. The title provides more than one play on words - Cynthia had been married to her third husband John Twist at the time - and late in her most recent work John she admits that the first memoir wasn't wholly her idea. Strapped for cash, and pressured by Twist, she penned the tell-all much to John and Yoko's consternation. This might explain why Cynthia decided to re-tell her story rather than heavily revise Twist and resurrect that work in a time when many authors' back lists are enjoying new life in the Kindle age.

I also gathered toward the end of John that money is not a motive for this work, but rather a desire to contribute to the Lennon legend - that its publication nearly coincided with a Lennon milestone (the 25th anniversary of his death) shouldn't be lost on anybody, either. Yet, though she and John divorced, her perspective is certainly no less important than that of any other woman involved with the band.

As I look over comments on Lennon where his personal life was concerned, I definitely see split camps of opinion on Yoko Ono. You love her or you despise her - middle ground simply doesn't exist there. Regarding Cynthia, I had expected to find more sympathy than indifference towards her among Beatles fans, yet it surprised me to find Cynthia is not without her detractors. Some reviews on the book's Amazon.com page accuse the first Mrs. Lennon of repeating motives with her previous book - a money grab and an opportunity to complain. Having finished Patti Boyd's memoir (reviewed here) I thought it worthwhile to see Beatle history from another woman's angle.

Reading John, you essentially get as much of that as you did from Wonderful Tonight, which isn't what most fans would call definitive. John opens at the moment news breaks of Lennon's death. Cynthia, already stressed from yet another failing marriage and the pressures of running a business, is naturally devastated. Despite their distance and rare instances of communication, her love for this difficult man remains, as well as the link shared in their son. It's from this tragic moment that Cynthia segues into her earlier life with Lennon, which encouraged me as a reader because I had hoped not to turn a page to find the same Beatles story I've read in so many books. Yet when the story veered off tangent to Cynthia's pre-John years I felt disappointed. Bear in mind, it isn't because I'm not interested in Mrs. Lennon's early life, but as the book is named John I wanted the author not to lose focus.

We are introduced to early supporting players in the Beatles story, yet few receive as much page time as John's Aunt Mimi, with whom Cynthia had a tense, if not borderline civil, relationship. The picture painted here of John's foster parent reveals a bitter woman unmoved by any of Lennon's triumphs and perhaps jealous of Cynthia's presence - Kristin Scott-Thomas's portrayal of Mimi in Nowhere Boy seems much softer by comparison.

The early years are marked by Cynthia's memories of unjustified scorn and resentment - fans hated her because she had what they wanted, John was likely unfaithful in Hamburg, and Brian Epstein didn't want the world to know she existed. Mrs. Lennon does point out, however, that she never perceived Lennon felt trapped into marriage by her pregnancy. They never used protection, she writes, it wasn't something you did. As implied by her writings, a woman standing up for herself when she feels wronged is also on that list.

We are led through the early sixties with Cynthia in a state of stoic acceptance, not really showing strong emotion in the book until Yoko appears. By this time, however, it seems too late to take a stand, and the remainder of the novel plays out in a tortured denouement, with Cynthia now reporting from the sidelines as she recalls her post-John life in a series of strained communications with her ex, bad relationship choices, and frustration over John's neglect of his oldest son. In writing about Julian's visits to the Dakota in John's lifetime, there are attempts to dispel the myth of Lennon's bread-baking househusband image. To be fair, harsher biographers of Lennon have noted discrepancies as well.

What I find most interesting about this book is that while John's friend "Magic" Alex Madras is mentioned, Cynthia downplays her involvement with him. Other books on the Beatles have claimed Cynthia and Alex had a fling after the Lennons' breakup, yet John denies the notion - Cynthia charges Alex sought to seduce her to give John ammunition during divorce proceedings, and she didn't play along. She doesn't outright say there was no sexual relationship, but it is curious to read in light of how this period is captured in other books.

I wanted to like John, and I had expected to see an ugly side of the former Beatle people want to remember for his music and peace activism. No man is without sin, and even the most revered of heroes carry the burden of being human. What I take away most from Cynthia's book is her insistence that John did love her, and a shocking final line that turns the entire book into a tale of regret. Mrs. Lennon's claim that John's method of dealing with difficult situations by simply cutting off contact with people and moving forward is a common theme throughout the book, and her concluding remarks imply she can't quite do the same.

I suppose, as fans, neither can we.

Rating: C+

Kathryn Lively is a mystery author whose titles include Dead Barchetta and Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery.






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