Let me be clear: this is not a book review. I’ve never written a book review and I don’t intend to start now. This is simply a commentary on a book and the impact it had, very personally, on me. That said, there are “spoilers” I guess, so don’t read this if you plan to read Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist.
I read this book for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were my love of Carrie Fisher and my sentimentality over her death. I kept seeing reviews for this, her final book, in which she chronicles (among other things) her Star-Wars-era affair with Harrison Ford. Reviews for this book almost universally take on a fan-girl quality; fans and critics uniting in mutual enthusiasm: Han and Leia were together in real life! They describe the book as “intimate and hilarious,” “an amusing jaunt down memory lane,” “witty and authentic,” “funny and touching,” “packed with one-liners,” ……you get the idea. They see it as rollicking celebrity gossip, or “wish fulfilment for Star Wars fanatics,” which leaves me wondering if any of them actually read the book.
I found it irrevocably and unshakably heartbreaking.
The Princess Diarist is not what I expected. I still can’t decide if it’s even what I wanted. Don’t get me wrong here: Carrie Fisher did an excellent job with it. I loved the book. I’ve reread it three times now, color-coding it with post-its flags of my emotions, and I haven’t even owned it for very long. It’s full of emotion and heart and vulnerability, and it is, at various points, amusing and self-deprecating. But I’d never call it hilarious, or lighthearted.
As someone who also, at 19, had an affair with an older and unavailable man, someone who also kept a journal during the experience (and never again afterwards), I knew before I opened the book that I would relate to it. If I’m being honest, it was the primary reason I bought it. I assumed I’d recognize some emotional parallels between my situation and hers. Knowing Carrie Fisher’s personality, I was ready for a funny, lighthearted, straightforward, possibly self-deprecating approach to her own affair. I hoped it would give me perspective on my own.
Carrie Fisher’s 19-year-old self is full of insecurity, anxiety, and low self-esteem. “I forgave him for not loving me in the way one usually expects,” she writes, “and almost forgave myself for not expecting it.” You experience her heartbreak as it’s happening, and all the while she pretends it doesn’t exist. The worst part of her descriptions is that she consistently tries to trivialize her own feelings, tries to pretend her vulnerability isn’t there. She mocks herself for having emotions, tries to put a comical spin on it, but it comes off much more like desperation than actual humor.
All I could see at first were the painfully obvious similarities. In so many cases, her journal could have been mine, and mine hers. Our nineteen-year-old selves would have either been friends (bonded by the mutual misery of secret-keeping and unrequited love), or hated each other (for being the physical embodiment of our own vulnerabilities). Eerily similar phrases popped up in our respective journals, so much so that I actually went and found my own so I could compare them. I guess insecure 19-year-olds who are in love with unavailable and inappropriate men are all remarkably similar. You can see those similarities for yourself in the quotes I’ve entered below — just a few selections out of dozens of nearly-identical phrases and emotions.
On those points where our stories diverged, however, I found myself inordinately jealous of Carrie’s experience when compared to my own.
Carrie describes Harrison as sullen and silent, disinclined to discuss their relationship or their future. Even as she fantasizes about a potential happily-ever-after future, she seems to accept that it will never happen, writing, “No one was telling anyone that they felt misunderstood and as such there wouldn’t be anything leaving-wise in his instance. So that was that.”
I wish I’d had such clarity at the time. My own Harrison was charming, funny, interesting, and often endearing. It made it difficult to know what he felt for me, or ultimately for anyone.
I tried to seem indifferent to him, Whatever, I know you won’t leave her so I’d never embarrass myself by asking you to, because I refused to ask him for more than we already had. I refused to be clingy, or needy, or to push any boundaries or ask anything that might make him leave. So I faked indifference, all while watching his every move and listening intently to his every word. My focus was entirely on him whenever he was nearby — not that I let him know it — because I constantly hoped that hidden within his words or actions would be some clue or hint that would indicate our future (or lack of one). A clear answer on this point, like Harrison’s refusal to discuss it, might have been the reality check I needed.
Then again, having read Carrie’s experience, I wonder if it would have made any difference at all.
“I was relieved when it ended,” Carrie writes. “I didn’t approve of myself.”
I didn’t either. I ended my affair multiple times. I’d walk away. I’d stop talking to him, wouldn’t go near him, wouldn’t interact with him at all. And then, for a multitude of reasons I could never quite define, it would start all over again. It was like magnets, or satellites — or, more accurately, like a slow-burn chemical reaction destined for an explosion at an indeterminate time.
“While there’s still time for Carrison to grow old together, that gateway is steadily closing,” Carrie mused. “If we’re going to get back together we’re going to have to do it soon.”
And this is the one that really broke my heart. Of all the phrases, all the emotions, all of the devastating musings of Carrie’s book, this present-day passing comment was the one that made me cry. Because here she is, all these years later, having at some point been married and had a child, and yet somewhere in her mind she still hoped that she and Harrison would end up together. Time and distance did nothing to erase that (admittedly dwindling) possibility. The fact that Carrie passed away after writing this book makes that dreamy, wishful sentence even more heart-wrenching.
I enjoyed the book, in the sense that it was very genuine, and very powerful, and very engaging.
But I’d never call it lighthearted. I’d never describe it as “amusing.” I wouldn’t diminish its power that way.
It’s an excellent read, I’ll tell people. And it’s heartbreaking.
[EXCERPTS FROM THE DIARIES OF CARRIE AND COKI]
Carrie: “…perhaps what disturbed Harrison was the implication that he was subsequently burdened with something very like responsibility, in that he had somehow been given a gift he hadn’t wanted or expected.”
Coki: “He seems to feel responsible for me, like I need education in all the ways I should stay away from men like him, all while being charming enough to keep me around.”
Carrie: “Harrison was on his lickety-split way to being everything to me.”
Coki: “I’m half in love with this man, and he isn’t mine. How’s that for absurd?”
Carrie: “How could you ask such a shining specimen of a man to be satisfied with the likes of me?”
Coki: “I don’t even know why he’s interested. Here I am, the nerdiest 19-year-old virgin you’re ever likely to find, and for some reason he thinks I’m something worth looking at. What??”
Carrie: “There were two reasons I wrote the diaries….it seemed to calm me, getting anything that might be chaotic behind the eyes onto the page in front of me where it could do me less harm….[and] I felt that I couldn’t confide in anyone else, because [he] was married. And not to me.”
Coki: “I have a lot on my mind and no good way to put it into words or explain it. And, after all, who the hell would I even explain it to? It’s not like I can go out for girl’s weekend and lament the tragedy of my love affair with [him].”
Carrie: “Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”
Coki: “How did I arrive here, in this moment, loving this man who will never love me back? What choices did I make to get me here?”
Carrie: “He would wonder where I had been all his life and then recall with a bemused, ironic sinking feeling that I had yet to be born for much of it.”
Coki: “I get so angry with him sometimes because when we argue, he likes to dismiss my opinions as being ‘young’ or ‘naive.’ I am admittedly naive about this relationship, but not about much else, so it infuriates me. You picked ME, so don’t you dare act like my age is such a huge problem for you.”
Carrie: “The inevitability of his escape is most likely his most attractive feature.”
Coki: “It’s the chase. I tend to pick a guy who’s totally unobtainable and try to get him, like it’s a game, like no one’s going to be broken at the end.”
Carrie: “I’m quite sure, though, that if I had any principles what I’m doing now would violate almost all of them.”
Coki: “Of my top relationship rules, I’ve broken all of them….I shouldn’t have let it start in the first place.”
Carrie: “We could come to a full stop now if you think that would help. Because like any other B-movie heroine, I can’t go on like this. Can you understand? I don’t want to hurt you any more than I want you to hurt me. It’s now a question of surviving each other’s company instead of enjoying it.”
Coki: “This is wrong. I abuse myself for my own lack of morality every single day and yet I do nothing about it. I should walk away and never look back. So why do I let it continue? Why are there always people you can’t make yourself stay away from?”
Carrie: “I’m frightened of the power that he has over me and of how he will almost certainly abuse it, merely by not being fully aware he has it.”
Coki: “I can’t let him see that I want him more than he wants me. He could wreck me with a look, with a sentence, or with silence, and that’s the worst part of this whole thing.”