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Emma Who Saved My Life: A Novel Paperback – June 15, 1998

3.8 out of 5 stars 51 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This first novel comes with a highly eulogistic note from the publisher, and on this occasion the enthusiasm is right on the mark. Emma is a winner--a book of enormous charm, full of sharp, often acid, character sketches, memorable scenes, alternately touching and uproariously funny, that linger in the memory--and told in a narrative style so cunningly paced and organized that it is difficult to believe this is really the work of a first-time writer. (We are assured, however, that he is a North Carolina-born graduate student at Oxford, and that this is truly his first book.) It's the story of Gil Freeman, a young aspiring actor just arrived from the Midwest in New York in the mid-'70s, and his progress as a thespian, as well as a lover and friend to a variety of Manhattan denizens of that time and place. Emma Gennaro, from the moment he becomes one of her roommates, is particularly close to Gil's heart: a frenzied, funny, desperate soul whose increasingly real agonies, with drugs and the surrounding society, take her further and further away from him. Nothing is conventional about their relationship; neither can entirely do without the other, yet the only time they consummate their long affection is in an agonizing scene close to the end of the book. There are fragmentary suggestions, at the beginning, middle and end of Gil's story, that it's all being told in safe retrospect, from the perspective of a man if not entirely happy in marriage and fatherhood, at least beyond youthful indiscretions. But the immediacy of his years in New York, in a series of dreadful apartments, mingling with the bohemians and charlatans of the theater, auditioning, conniving, being briefly and ashamedly successful, is overwhelming. The zany flavor of city life has seldom been better caught, and there are set-pieces here, like a party at the loft of a hostess despised by all her guests, an absurd July 4th weekend at the Jersey shore, scenes in a grungy all-night cafe, that leap from the page in their gritty authenticity, their exact ear for dialogue. Barnhardt's only fault is an occasional too-easy blackout, a refusal to take a scene to its ultimate implications for the sake of moving things along. But that's a minor flaw in what has to be one of the most promising fictional debuts in many years. 100,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo; author tour.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

New York beckons, and sophomore theater major Gil Freeman leaves Southern Illinois University to share an apartment in the Village with "TWO WHOLE WOMEN," aspiring artist Lisa, a friend from SIU, and aspiring poet Emma. Through a decade of ups and downs and menial jobs, beguilingly neurotic Emma is the lodestone in narrator Gil's life, saving him occasionally from despair, always from boredom. Eventually Gil will make it to Broadway (and to the truth about his acting), Emma will be published, and there will be a consummation of their relationship. By then the energetic irrepressibility of this coming-of-age story, with its realistic flavor of the city, winds down. A promising first novel for its ease and humor alone; almost better in parts (occasionally overly clever) than as a whole.
- Michele Leber, Fairfax Cty . P . L . , Va.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (June 15, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312191189
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312191184
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (51 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,187,132 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I have read this book every year that I have lived in New York, and each time I have a different experience with it. The first time I read it, I had just arrived in NY, fresh out of college, and I agreed with the reviewer who wrote that it's a great book until the end. Then I read it a year later and decided that it could not have ended any other way. This book is about growing up, and it has so mirrored my own experience of this city that I laugh and cry and have a totally different experience of it each time I pick it up. Sort of like looking at an old photo album--where you realize your relationships with the people inside the book have changed, but the feelings evoked by looking at them are just as strong as ever.
It's lovely. I can't imagine admiring a book more.
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Format: Paperback
Snappy. Fun. Funny. UNIQUE! Finally...something different to read! The dialogue is witty. The characters were amusing. The main character is so very clever; I like the "stream of consciousness" way about him. I am not one to read "long" books, however, all the moments in the characters' lives were ironed out in the craziest, most entertaining ways.

I want to read more books like this. In fact, I purchased Show World by Barnhardt. I'm looking forward to the read!
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Format: Paperback
This is far and away the most enjoyable book I have EVER read. I bought the hardcover in 1989, and over the years have re-read it many, many times. I even named my daughter "Emma"! It is laugh out loud hysterical, and deeply moving. You feel as though you are transported to NYC in the 70s and 80s, sharing experiences with these unbelievable realistic characters. I cannot stress enough how wonderful this book is, I have yet to find one I like as much, and I read A LOT of books-trust me!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Emma Who Saved My Life is one of the funniest novels I've ever read, and one of the sharpest memoirs of NYC. I was born and raised in that wonderful city, and lived and worked there during the years covered by the story. Borough by borough, the author has the NYC of that time exactly right. One of the reasons I love this book is that it brings me back to the years I spent there.
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Format: Paperback
Read this book! If you were in college in the '70s I know you'll agree with me that "Emma" captured the essence of that time better than anything ever written - ever. This is my favorite novel. It amazes me how often I find people who share the same opinion because Wilton Barnhardt is not so well known. This gifted writer should stop teaching and keep writing! All his novels are terrific, but "Emma" will always have a special place in my heart
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Format: Paperback
I happened to obtain an advance galley of this book in 1989, when it was first published, and something made me sit down with it--I'm convinved that fate exists, as this is definitely among my "Top 5" fiction books of all time, and like other reviewers, I continue to give this hilarious book away as a gift to anyone I consider a good friend!
I cannot do the wry and right-on-target observations and humor justice here, but I can *promise* that anyone who reads two chapters of this book will not want to put it down until it's finished, at which point they'll want to go back and read it again!
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Format: Paperback
Found this book in a discount store, cost $1, decided why not give it a try...surprise discovery: $1 nowadays does indeed buy something worthwhile! Definitely a book to purchase GUILTFREE, even for FULL price (imagine that!), because you'll likely want to hold onto it, given it's the rare book where throughout the reading you're entirely convinced you are peering straight into another person's mind, essentially eavesdropping on his deep-most feelings- Gil, the main character who tells the story, is devoted to expressing his honest reactions (he's not ashamed to reveal to us the times he cried; no false pretensions here- how refreshing!- those of us who have brothers probably don't know them as well as we end up knowing Gil; in this novel Barnhardt displays a special talent for MAIN character development). Barnhardt created this man-boy Gil in such a way that I thoroughly believed that Gil was Barnhardt himself (meaning, an autobiographical work)...and from this false impression arose my only disappointment: at the end of the book, after I read Barnhardt's bio, I had to face the fact that Gil's a fictional character and not a real man! Silly but true! Besides for the joy (and in this novel's case, the sense of relaxation) that comes from feeling as if you're truly inside the main character's brain is Barnhardt's marvelous talent for capturing the pulse of New York City in the 1970's and 1980's. Amazingly delightfully on-target! Do read it for fun...and, as an extra and somewhat unexpected benefit, you may find yourself not only entertained but relishing contemplating this novel's deeper "meanings" about whether the path you've chosen in life is taking you where you REALLY want to go (re: Gil pondering his "ultimate" decision about how to spend his acting career- Those reviewers here who disliked the novel's ending might like to rethink their understanding of it by asking themselves "What does Gil REALLY do next?").
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The reason I started my blog, SHELF DISCOVERY, was in the hopes that I could discover some undiscovered gem that could be thoroughly consumed and shared with my brethren. Of course, despite having won the Pulitzer Prize, when A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES was recommended to me I had no idea what it was that it would turn out to be my favorite book. Of course, the older one gets the more difficult it is to find a "hidden gem." The TALES OF THE CITY series, Wally Lamb's SHE'S COME UNDONE, Edmund Wilson's trilogy, as well as CITY OF THE NIGHT are just a few of the titles I have discovered in strange and twisting avenues in the past 20 years, so, you will have to indulge me, I just assumed there was nothing old to discover. But thanks to an out-of-left field recommendation, Wilton Barnhardt's EMMA WHO SAVED MY LIFE is just that book, a long, sprawling novel that is the beauty, confusion, danger and joy of coming of age in New York City, 1974-1983. Barnhardt, who thus far has only published three novels, the most recent in 1999, is an author I had never heard of, nor had I heard of this book, so I am thinking, without doing the proper research, that somewhere, in some circles, this book has a cult following that has eluded me. I don't want it to elude you. Our narrator, Gil Freeman, leaves suburban Chicago in 1974 and moves to NYC to live with a former college friend, Lisa, and her roommate Emma, a poetess who is a more realistic depiction of the kooky NYC stereotype that emerged after the creation of Holly Golightly. The book reminded me of one of my favorite books of the 90s, Allan Gurganus' PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS, a book that I still never tire of shameless recommending. EMMA, however, takes a different route, as Freeman is a heterosexual male in a city and time that is constantly changing.Read more ›
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