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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman

Newman's recollections and insights are brutally honest and unforgiving. Interviews with family, friends, and coworkers shed light on the ups, downs, and various factors behind the scenes of Newman's life.

While I was waiting for the audiobook version of The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man to be available through my library, I started watching The Last Movie Stars, a six-part documentary about Newman and Joanne Woodward.

The weekend we got engaged in New York City, we sat near Paul and Joanne at Sam Shepherd's play True West. (Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly were two weeks into the several months they spent alternating the roles of Lee and Austin each night, and the performances were incredible.)

Anyhoo, Paul was wearing the ugliest sweater with abstract stripes across it, and Barbara Walters came over and they and Joanne had the zaniest, most animated chitchat, I loved the whole vibe. (Obviously I just wanted to work into this review the not-quite-anecdote of sitting two rows behind Paul Newman over twenty years ago. Thank you for your patience.)

Despite the promise of a future friendship between us that was born from our proximity in that theatre lo those many years ago, until recently, I didn't know much about Paul Newman beyond the most well-documented aspects of his life (blue eyes, movie career, wife Woodward, car racing, and his food product line and altruism with its proceeds).

Early on, the television series The Last Movie Stars interviews children from Newman's first marriage (he had three; he was unfaithful to his first wife for an extended period with Woodward, and there is an unhappy abandonment reaction expressed by his daughter--I can't recall if both daughters were interviewed or only Stephanie--that persisted for me through this account of events). This setup negatively colored my view of Newman.

Add to that the self-deprecating nature he displays in the interviews that make up the television documentary (an attitude also present early on in and throughout the audiobook) and his repeated assertion (I'm paraphrasing) that he's really a simple, relatively uninteresting person without a lot of complex thoughts or particular talent. He was so convincing, when I was a third of the way through the audiobook, I was still questioning whether I was interested in investing time in listening to his story and whether there would be very much to it.

But a memoir, read by the author? I typically can't say no. I'm interested in a vulnerable laying-bare of emotions and an offering of behind-the-scenes insights. Paul allowed his best friend to interview him over a period of years--the recordings that, along with key asides from family and friends to add context to Newman's recollections and reflections, became this book--with one stipulation: that he and everyone involved must be brutally honest. The insights reflect what seems to be these subjects' unvarnished memories and thoughts.

Newman's dogged insistence that he is not special seems to have stemmed somewhat from the volatile, emotionally unstable, neglectful home life his parents created. His resulting lack of personal expectations paired with his passion for exploration--and for passion itself--became a foundation for his life in all areas: professional, romantic, personal, hobby, and altruistic.

Jeff Daniels's reading of the interviews imbues the audiobook with Newman's vulnerability and also his fiery nature. I was intrigued by Newman's straightforward approach to outlining what he feels were his faults, his greatest joys, his missteps, and his moments of earned pride.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?


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