Memoir as a form occupies an ambiguous status. It makes us ask ‘Why is this being told? Is this self-indulgent reflection or a confessional?’ Memoir brackets off a selected span of time, and is more about how the author remembers this period, than the period itself.
Memoirs also beg the question ‘What has been left out and why?’ It seems in Carly Simon’s Boys in Trees, not much has been. The book is anchored by the major male figures in her life, from childhood up until her public divorce from fellow musician James Taylor in the 80s, and rewards the reader’s false familiarity with a string of famous names and the emblematic times that they hailed from. It follows a turbulent and passionate three decades, which she lays bare unabashedly and with a good dose of the overblown. But then again her life, by our standards, is rather over-the-top.
Carly was born into a lush childhood of privilege and cultural opportunity as the third daughter of the famous, erudite and troubled publisher Richard L. Simon (co-founder of the publisher Simon & Schuster). Dinner parties at the family house in Stamford comprised a heady mix of showbiz people, classical composers and fast-witted authors. The keen sense of performance, that border between public and private, is evident right from the start, whether in the dual between outward confidence and inward suffering, or in a more literal sense: ‘Singing at the dinner table was nothing out of the ordinary; our entire house was an opera’.
She captures the betrayals and dark undercurrents that run through the household. Cuckolded and having had his business forced from him, her father is a shadow of his former self: distant from his daughter, retiring, padding around the house in a dressing gown. Carly’s mother Andrea has moved her twenty-year-old lover into the family house; Carly is exposed to other unwanted sexual improprieties. She develops a stutter and severe anxiety, which she calls The Beast, a constant life companion. Enter music – a soothing respite from the troubles of this private world.
Part Two examines more formative years: a music debut in the folk duo the Simon Sisters with her sister Lucy, the harassment of producers, the spending of her inheritance and years of her life on Freudian analysts. Then the ‘dazzling and uninhibited’ 70s arrive, where her song writing takes off – ‘It was the beginning of the beat to a different life.’
So too does her list of lovers. A series of romantic encounters of varying length and intimacy accumulate – Cat Stevens, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson. The accompanying anecdotes come thick and fast. Carly visits her analyst after spending the night with Warren Beatty and admits this to the analyst, only to learn that she is not the first patient that day to make such an admission. Stories of songs being written are set against a series of New York apartments filled with interesting people, empty wine glasses and overflowing ashtrays. We learn that ‘Anticipation’ was written while Carly waited for a running-late Cat Stevens at her apartment, while chicken with cream and cherries heated on the element.
The memoir builds inevitably towards its third part, which details her eleven-year love affair and marriage to James Taylor – a relationship that had a momentum of its own (which we are repeatedly told in a variety of ways). She describes their partnership as a perfect fourth, a melding of voices that then painfully unravels through cheating, depression, anxiety and drug abuse. This is where the pace slackens through over-analysis and an increase in repetitions and redundancies. Language becomes flowery to distraction: ‘James was my muse, my Orpheus, my sleeping darling, my “good night, sweet prince,” my something-in-the-way-he-moves’.
Carly comes across as smart, tenderly honest and funny – with a tendency for the over-the-top and over-analysis. In her remembering she is always looking for meaning, forcing its hand at times, which does become tiring. Yet this unconventional life is entertaining reading despite the need for more rigorous editing. The ambiguous memoir suits Carly’s portrayal of the ambiguous status of much of her life and loves.
Reviewed by Emma Johnson
Boys in Trees: A Memoir
by Carly Simon
Published by Constable