The problem with Drew Barrymore’s new book of autobiographical essays isn’t that she’s had a boring life. She started working in infancy, heir to an acting dynasty and daughter of a troubled father and a manager-mother. Her rapid fame, her reckless escapades as a young adult and her multiple engagements and marriages formed the stuff of tabloid legend. She climbed her way back to a career as an actor and producer from the precipice of former-child-stardom.
No, the problem here isn’t a dearth of good material but the author’s lack of interest in exploring it. “Wildflower” is relentlessly and blandly upbeat.
The stark, astonishing facts of Barrymore’s childhood — smoking and drinking, rehab, legally emancipated by the time she was a young teenager — are cursorily mentioned, if at all. She gives the barest background to explain why she had to get her own apartment and teach herself how to do laundry, because the story she really wants to tell is about how conquering her fears at the Laundromat “taught me how to tackle everything moving forward.” Barrymore’s first, brief marriage, at the age of 19, to a much-older bar owner, is mentioned in passing (“I had just married a guy I was dating”) as part of a chapter about the time she took a terrible boat trip in the 1990s.
The tone throughout is doggedly inspirational.
“I love flowers. I protect flowers,” Barrymore writes, explaining why the childhood loss of a bougainvillea bush lead her to distrust ads for weed-killers and, indeed, the whole notion of pruning. (The symbolism of the lost bougainvillea bush — sudden fame, lost childhood — lies taut and largely unexplored.) “Let us all be wildflowers!”
There are chapters about Barrymore’s love for her two daughters and her deep appreciation for her in-laws. There are life lessons about never giving up — the time she took an Outward Bound trip with Cameron Diaz and managed, after hours of frustrated rubbing, to spark a fire — but on the greatest adversities of her life, the actress is mute. Her father, who struggled with drugs and alcohol and whom Barrymore herself once called “abusive,” is rendered here with a lighter touch, as an eccentric who couldn’t stick around for her childhood because he was a wild “horse” who “couldn’t be pinned down.”
“My mother and father were both incapable of being parents, and I don’t fault them for it,” Barrymore writes. “I am lucky that I got dealt some cards that showed me what it’s like to not have family, and I am much luckier to now have the chance to create my own deck!”
“Wildflower” is not exactly a memoir, but a series of life stories told out of order, and this disordered chronology and missing context give the reader a sense of backing into the story. It’s possible Barrymore figured that readers already knew the details of her life from profiles and from an autobiography she published as a teenager in 1990. But only super-fans are likely to be able to fill in the gaps without turning to Wikipedia.
Still, there are stories that will delight fans and casual observers. The actress recounts several long-ago incidents when, following some urgent and primal instinct, she committed acts of pure young-adult recklessness: jumping over the side of that boat and swimming to a rock. Bashing her Bronco through the locked gate of a closed parking lot on New Year’s Eve. Doing an impromptu strip on David Letterman’s desk and flashing the host on TV. All of them are framed as turning moments when the girl who had been raising herself for years was shocked into growing up. But they are also unscripted and unvarnished and somehow free, standing in stark contrast to the picture of herself that Barrymore paints now: a careful mother who dedicates herself to packing lunches with “bento-box-style precision” and is determined to find the silver lining in every situation.
“At 19 I had ruined the sacred nature of marriage. I had killed my career by 12,” she writes. If Barrymore is even half as relentlessly optimistic in real life as in her book, that seems a triumph given the long odds that once faced her. But alas, it doesn’t make for the best reading.
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York and a former Washington Post reporter.
On Nov. 3 at 7 p.m., Drew Barrymore will be at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington.
By Drew Barrymore
Dutton. 276 pp. $28