A Way of Life, Like Any Other was first published in 1977, won a slew of awards, then at some point, went out of print. Republished this year in paperback and e-book, a whole new generation is sure to be delighted by this wonderful book.
O’Brien was the only child of 1940’s movie stars George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, went to Princeton and spent most of his life as a college professor. This book is really a fictionalized memoir of O’Brien’s peculiar childhood in the Hollywood of the Golden Age.
The nameless narrator is born into a sumptuous life, while his parents are at the height of their careers. They live on a luxurious California ranch, attended by numerous staff doting on the little fellow. “Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine?” That line alone establishes the tone of the book: wry, humorous, a bit snarky. As a result, I chuckled through some what would have otherwise been pretty dark passages.
Hollywood careers and marriages don’t last of course, and the parent stars are no exception. The little tyke first goes with his mother who declines into ever seedier surroundings and lovers. With her son a young teenager, she runs off to Italy with one fella, soon trading him in for another. Fed up, our hero returns to California to live with his dad.
Things are bad on that score as well. Dad has declined, and lives in acrimonious squalor with his mother-in-law. The environment is intolerable for a youngster and he soon moves in with a school friend, the son of a big producer. The producer and his zany family warmly treat the homeless boy as their own. But the zaniness is masking insanity and dysfunction, so the refuge doesn’t last forever.
The story follows our narrator through his early college years and his eventual complete independence. This could easily have read as a tragedy, and though many of the events are truly sad, O’Brien keeps the tone light and humorous. It’s masterfully done and a real pleasure to read.