Summary and book reviews of The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing

The Trip to Echo Spring

On Writers and Drinking

by Olivia Laing

The Trip to Echo Spring
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Dec 2013, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2014, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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About this Book

Book Summary

Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them?

In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.

All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often, they did their drinking together: Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of Paris in the 1920s; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.

Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever's New York to Williams's New Orleans, and from Hemingway's Key West to Carver's Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.

Beautiful, captivating, and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.

1

ECHO SPRING

HERE’S A THING. IOWA CITY, 1973. Two men in a car, a Ford Falcon convertible that’s seen better days. It’s winter, the kind of cold that hurts bones and lungs, that reddens knuckles, makes noses run. If you could, by some devoted act of seeing, crane in through the window as they rattle by, you’d see the older man, the one in the passenger seat, has forgotten to put on his socks. He’s wearing penny loafers on bare feet, oblivious to the cold, like a prep school boy on a summer jaunt. In fact you could mistake him for a boy: slight, in Brooks Brothers tweeds and flannel trousers, his hair immaculately combed. Only his face betrays him, collapsed into hangdog folds.

The other man is bigger, burlier, thirty-five. Sideburns, bad teeth, a ragged sweater open at the elbow. It’s not quite nine a.m. They turn off the highway and pull into the parking lot of the state liquor store. The clerk’s out front, keys glinting in his hand. Seeing him,...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

My affection for this book grew slowly. Laing liberally mingles her present travels, her own past exposure to alcoholism with the lives and writings of the featured writers. This complex layering initially intimidated, and at times, confused me. But as I read, I grew accustomed to the complex rhythm, then became happily absorbed by it. This splintered narrative might not be for every reader; it is ultimately effective, however, in exposing just that same characteristic in the lives - and sometimes written words - of those controlled by drink.   (Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie).

Full Review Members Only (606 words).

Media Reviews

The Wall Street Journal

[An] eccentric, impassioned, belle-lettristic, graceful and haunted book....[Laing's] story has a rambling, daydream quality.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

.I've read many words about the alcoholism of literary writers, and many more words about the 12 Step model of addiction and recovery. But until "Echo Spring," I'd never read a writer who bridged both worlds with such intelligence, grace and thoughtfulness.

The Chicago Tribune

Impecabbly researched...exposing details that, while mostly sad, are almost sickeningly absorbing. The result is a multilayered biography that reads quick as fiction, and is teeming with fantastically melancholy details of the writers we thought we knew

Kirkus Reviews

A provocative, evocative blend of memoir, literary history and lyrical travel writing.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. [A] fine study of a human frailty through the eyes of its most perceptive victims.

Booklist

Starred Review. Laing, with shimmering detail and arresting insights, presents a beautifully elucidating and moving group portrait of writers enslaved by drink and redeemed by 'the capacity of literature to somehow...make one feel less flinchingly alone.'

Library Journal

Starred Review. A funny, tragic, and insightful journey for anyone who has read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, or John Berryman; prepare to be smitten with this fresh offering.

The Sunday Times (UK)

A beguiling, beautifully written journey in search of six famous literary drunks. What gives her book its brilliance and originality...[is] the quality of its writing.

The Independent (UK)

The beauty of Laing's book lies not just in the poetry of her prose, the rich array of images, and literary allusions to her chosen subjects evoked during her transcontinental ghost-hunt, but intriguing links she makes to a wider literary landscape.

The Times (UK)

Laing's analysis of the complex addiction is consistently shrewd. But what makes The Trip to Echo Spring truly worthwhile is that she, like those she writes about, is a terrific writer.

Scotland on Sunday

This book is a triumphant exercise in creative reading in which diary entries, letters, poems, stories and plays are woven together to explore deep, interconnected themes of dependence, denial and self-destructiveness. It is a testimony to this book's compelling power that having finished it, I immediately wanted to read it again.

Author Blurb Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize–winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
I think this is a book for all writers or would-be writers, whether succeeding or failing, whether standing on their feet or flat on the pavement....It’s one of the best books I've read about the creative uses of adversity: frightening but perversely inspiring.

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Beyond the Book

Six Authors and Alcohol

Olivia Laing's second book, The Trip to Echo Spring explores the lives of six twentieth century American authors who all coped with alcoholism in their lives and careers. Some information about each of these troubled, talented men:

F. Scott Fitzerald (1896 - 1940)
F. Scott FitzgeraldFitzgerald is best known as a novelist who portrayed, and indeed coined the term, the Jazz Age. He also wrote short stories, plays and screenplays. His most famous novel is The Great Gatsby, which was given the modern Hollywood treatment in the 2013 film of the same name. Fitzgerald's drinking problems were fairly well known during his career and may have contributed to some reviewers not taking his work as seriously as he hoped. He died of a heart attack at age 44, eight ...

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