Mini Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

The audiobook image capitalizes on the success of the film by integrating the movie poster.

In the early 1990s, best-selling — but now irrelevant — biographer Lee Israel finds herself running out of money. She’s never held a real job, being able to support herself with writing for quite a time, and so working like a joe-schmoe just isn’t for her. Instead, she starts forging letters by old-timey famous actors and writers, such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Able to keep the ruse up for almost two years, Israel then is finally caught by the FBI and given probation.

Watching the 2018 film starring Melissa McCarthy, I felt a great sense of story, emotion, desperation, and examination of human complexity. It made sense that in 2019 at the Academy Awards, Can You Ever Forgive Me? was up for best supporting actor, best lead actress, and best writing for a screenplay adaption. The memoir, however, fell flat.

Instead of writing herself as a complex person the way the screenwriter did, Israel makes herself sound like a forgetful, dumpy jerk — which is fine, expect she doesn’t explore the root or motive of these behaviors. Rather than digging into the heart of her circumstances and time in forgery, which would include how she felt about what she was doing and her feelings for the buyers and dealers she manipulated, we mostly get copies of the letters she forged. Since I listened to the audiobook, read by Jane Curtain of Conehead fame, I didn’t know that the paperback version of Can You Ever Forgive Me? includes the forged letters as they looked when Israel sold them to dealers. It’s a neat addition to the physical book, but wouldn’t save the lack of depth.

There are other issues, such as Curtain’s voice suddenly growing louder, hurting my ears. Audio mixing to create balance is important! And there’s that one moment when Israel proclaims checking in with her parole officer in a room full of other parolees sounds like [insert the n-word six times]. . . Necessary, or is she a nasty person sneaking in the opportunity to use racial slurs?

Verdict? Not recommended in audiobook or paperback form.

23 comments

  1. I absolutely loved the movie. Melissa McCarthy is one of my favorite actors—I watch everything and anything that she’s in. Your criticisms strike an important chord, and I wonder how much Israel was interviewed for the screenplay to flesh out her character. Thanks for this!

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    • My favorite movie McCarthy is is would be Spy. She is a fat woman whose weight is never once commented upon. Yes, I know some viewers hated that she was dressed as the “crazy cat lady” for one disguise, but it didn’t bother me because I felt that her team was playing with stereotypes that people would believe.

      I hadn’t heard anything about Israel after the film, but I suppose I wasn’t looking, either. In fact, I had assumed she was deceased. Even the parts with man she took in as a friend and her beloved elderly cat being sick were fabricated. In the memoir, Israel had a new kitten that needed a vet, but none of the pathos of her one and only friend of over a decade that we get with the elderly cat. Her partner in crime doesn’t join in until the very last part of the memoir (which she calls the third trimester). No wonder the screenwriter was nominated for an Academy Award.

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  2. Hmm “not a real job”. I’ll let the real writers deal with that one. For someone who made her living by writing she doesn’t sound like a very good writer. I’ll give it a miss. On the other hand I have Orange is the New Black with me – I’ve just re-read your review – and I’ll listen to it on the way home (this weekend I hope).

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    • Perhaps my wording was inaccurate, but I felt that I captured what Israel herself wrote: that she’d never held a job or developed skills that would help her get a job beyond her ability to research and write.

      My manager recommended another prison memoir to me that I’d like to get to soon, called Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison.

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  3. yikes!!! Too bad this was such a drag. Also, I find it hilarious that you mention Coneheads! God I almost forgot about that totally weird movie. It’s like that decade’s ‘cats’ movie 🙂

    I remember seeing the trailer for the movie and wanting to watch it though! I love Melissa McCarthy, although I understand this movie isn’t like her usual..

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  4. I’ll be honest, I struggle to be sympathetic to characters like this who refuse to take available jobs that they view as “beneath” them. The movie sounds interesting though!

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  5. Interesting that she would write herself as LESS complex than someone else would. I can see how a screenwriter would want to play this up as it doesn’t sound like the book gives much to go on, but how odd that for a writer she wouldn’t have more to say about herself.

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    • Honestly I started to wonder if she was simply trying to further capitalize on her experience as a forger, but didn’t have the heart for it. The other thing I wondered is if writing about herself just wasn’t in her training as a writer. She was supposedly good at research, which is why she wrote biographies and was able to come up with convincing elements in her forged letters. Israel spent tons of time in libraries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, that’s an interesting possibility, that “writing about herself just wasn’t in her training as a writer.” I suppose I could fabricate things a lot easier than I could write a close reflection of my life as well! Admittedly it can be very hard to see the self in as clear a light as we seem to see others.

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          • I took a narrative nonfiction writing course in college and it was such a struggle- I can write facts in an essay easy enough, but for some reason writing about myself tends toward “creating” in the same way that fiction is for me; it’s not that I TRY to lie, I just can’t help embellishing a narrative! It would be so hard for me to write a memoir! Then again, it might be less of a problem if my life were more interesting. I imagine I could talk about forging letters easier than shouting into the void of social media.

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            • My master’s thesis was a hybrid flash fiction/memoir work, and I was actually surprised by how easy it was for me to write creative nonfiction. I chose the nonfiction professor to be one of my thesis committee members just to make sure I wasn’t tooting my own horn, and she agreed with me. I think the issue for me is I can’t write my memoirs until some select people have, uh, passed away.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t understand why audiobook producers don’t spend more time and money on mixing! Mixing is CRITICAL for all forms of sound. There is nothing worse than a poorly mixed… anything. Live music, recorded music, speeches, and audiobooks. I’ve given up on audiobooks many times because of poor mixing. I don’t want to hear you breathing or smacking your lips or tapping or whatever. I don’t want to crane to hear something in one moment, then get my eardrums blasted away the next.
    No. Thank you.

    I’m sorry this book didn’t quite work for you. Are you glad this book was made into a film? It sounds like you enjoyed the film a lot more– which isn’t common! I love it when films prove me wrong, personally.

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    • You know, I liked the film, but I didn’t love it. I guess I didn’t find Lee Israel’s story that interesting. I know that many of her forged letters were taken as the real deal for a long time, so much so that they were referenced in academic works and books and kept in museums. But she as a human is just . . . not that interesting. If you want a great Melissa McCarthy film, totally check out Spy. The line “you look like a slutty dolphin trainer” never fails to get me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hmmm I think I may have seen this movie. With the Ma. I thought it was well acted but the real woman sounds like a total jerk and I thought both the book and movie was to capitalize on being a forger. Seriously with all those research skills, she could have done that for someone instead.
    x The Captain

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    • It was like she had these amazing research skills and wanted to make money with her writing, but she didn’t want to write about anyone interesting to her potential audience. She wanted to write about these old timey, barely-known people.

      Liked by 1 person

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