Alice Garner’s The Student Chronicles, about her life at the University of Melbourne in the late 1980s and 1990s, shares a problem with self-published memoirs and family histories – if you know the people involved these stories of fairly ordinary and uneventful lives can be interesting in themselves; but if you don’t know them, you need some other reason to keep reading.
I don’t think Garner ever really finds a way to make her book compelling. Though her background is a little unusual – she is the daughter of writer Helen Garner, and enjoyed some success as an actor before starting her studies – for the most part at her time at the U of M was much like that of thousands of other identikit female Arts students. In one of the book’s few memorable phrases, she describes her early time as a student as enjoying a ‘warm bath of anonymity’. The book is one long bath of anonymity.
Who, for example, would have guessed that in a share house the guys don’t meet women’s standards of tidiness and cleanliness? Or that she was against the University’s decision to introduce full-fee undergraduate places, or opposed to VSU, or in favour of refugees?
Having had the same boyfriend (to whom she is now married) throughout her time at university, there isn’t even the novelistic drama the discovery and growth of love might have provided. Instead, we hear a bit about the love lives of various friends and housemates, which is even less interesting than the love life of an actress who is the daughter of a famous person.
Ross Gregory Douthat’s Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class is a much more successful student memoir. Though Douthat is a talented writer and has a better store of anecdotes than Garner (how could she beat going skinny dipping with William F. Buckley Jr?), he also knew that his own stories of roommates, student elections, studying and trying to get a girlfriend wouldn’t be enough in themselves. He solves this by locating his story in a much bigger story – that of Harvard itself and the ‘ruling class’ its students (despite all the efforts at ‘diversity’) largely come from and end up in.
Garner’s focus on her own experiences and feelings will perhaps appeal to fans of the chick lit genre. Mark Latham’s ‘metrosexual knobs and toss-bags’ might like it too. But most men who are not related to or friends with Alice Garner should spend their book budget on something else.