Wildflower by Drew Barrymore, reviewed.

Everything That Makes Drew Barrymore Charming Is What Makes Her New Book Annoying

Everything That Makes Drew Barrymore Charming Is What Makes Her New Book Annoying

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Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 16 2015 7:32 AM

Everything That Makes Drew Barrymore Charming Is What Makes Her New Book Annoying

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"Wildflower," by Drew Barrymore.
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Wildflower, by Drew Barrymore.

Drew Barrymore is my favorite actress. And do not ask me who my favorite director is, because I would be forced to say: also Drew Barrymore. Her 2009 film Whip It? A criminally underrated masterpiece of girly style and sass. And her production company, Flower Films? A bastion of femininity in our grossly male-dominated entertainment industry. Drew Barrymore is one of the very few people, with apologies to Britney Spears, about whom I feel exactly the same now as I did when I was 11.

The affability she projects is magnetic. She seems to be one of those people who likes just about everyone and everything. But I am sad to report that it turns out that the exact qualities that you appreciate in a public persona—the cheerfulness, the all-important wanting-to-get-a-manicure-together factor, the confidence tempered by mild space cadet-itude—can get to be sort of annoying in a book.

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With Wildflower, it’s a particular shame because Barrymore has one of the most interesting life stories in Hollywood. As Videogum once put it, “her public identity is the real life Benjamin Button ... tweaked out disco MILF at 10, quirky tween goof at 34.” Wildflower deals much more with Barrymore’s “quirky tween goof” adulthood (she is now 40) than it does her “tweaked-out disco MILF” days. She hesitates to call the book a “memoir” in its preface; “ ‘Memoir’ seemed heavy to me, and I want this to be light,” she writes. “Light” is exactly what this book is—Barrymore is much more interested in reveling in her newfound domestic bliss than in rehashing the past that made her so yearn for normal nuclear-family life in the first place.

Despite her Hollywood-royalty surname, Barrymore was raised by a single mother. Her onetime actor father John Barrymore was an unreliable presence in her life, and she was the family breadwinner from a young age. But instead of the nitty-gritty dark stuff, Barrymore uses Wildflower to tell disconnected out-of-order vignettes: the time she went skydiving with Cameron Diaz, the time she crashed her Bronco on purpose on the Sunset Strip, the time she visited Africa with the U.N., the time she made E.T. and became an international superstar.

Drew doesn’t dwell on her parents in the book, much less the drug problems that famously landed her in rehab at the age of 13. Of her mother—Barrymore was emancipated from her mom at 14 and rarely speaks to her but still support her—she writes, “I am grateful to this woman for bringing me into this world, and it would crush me to know she was in need anywhere. It is not who I am to harbor any anger for the fact that our life together was so incredibly unorthodox.” It seems so very hippie love child of her, lovely in its way, but also withholding—aren’t readers coming to her book because they want the unvarnished, warts-and-all story? Also, not that I don’t believe her, but who could really be that zen? The actress is similarly sanguine about her father: “[A]lthough he separated from my mom when she was pregnant, I somehow knew to forgive him,” she writes. Rather than resenting him, Barrymore writes in Wildflower of reacting to his death, when she was in her 20s, in exactly the way you might expect her to: She visits Joshua Tree in California to scatter his ashes, where she encounters his spirit one last time. “And just as I was falling asleep, my door slowly swung open on its own. And a ray of sun came pouring in. ‘Dad?’ ”

Barrymore never mentions her father’s struggles with alcohol or his violence toward her and her mother, which I only know about from reading parts of her juicier—and out-of-print—earlier memoir, Little Girl Lost. (Used copies currently start at $46.) In Wildflower, she is making the clear choice to put all that unpleasantness behind her in service of a more upbeat tone and spiritual happy ending. It is not even the book’s only ashes-scattering scene. Barrymore also scatters the ashes of two of her beloved dogs on Malibu Beach and journeys to India to scatter the ashes of a cherished third dog.

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The book is full of similarly bohemian moments. When Barrymore’s daughter Frankie is born, she writes, “I was being asked if I could dig deep and heal this pain from the relationship I had with my Taurus mother while I was looking at my Taurus daughter.” I am a sucker for the invocation of astrology, and it fits right in with Barrymore’s kooky persona, but again, readers know so little about her relationship with her mother that this bit only emphasizes the surface level on which the book skims. On a cruise to the Mediterranean, Barrymore, then 19 and “a non-bra-wearing, vintage-clothes sporting gal who carried a boom box that [she] had hand-painted rainbows and hearts and clouds on,” jumped off the ship, horrifying the friend and friend’s mother she was vacationing with.

After a detailed description of the daily itinerary of the trip, she spends a couple sentences contextualizing what she was feeling at the time: “One of the reasons I was eager to join this trip in the first place was that I had just married a guy I was dating, and I was also trying to help him with all his green card business. The whole thing was a bust, and as good as my intentions were, he was a wreck and I was an idiot, and we immediately shook hands and filed for divorce.” It is such an out-of-nowhere reference—one of the only windows in the book into her actual wild-child days—but she quickly moves on, back to the aftermath of her dive, never going deeper into that situation or what it those years were really like for her.

One of the only times she discusses her well-documented brushes with drugs and alcohol at an early age, her darkest admission is that as a drunk 11-year-old filming a movie in Germany and staying in a hotel, she and a bunch of other kids stole people’s clothes and threw them off balconies. “I haven’t thought about this in so long, but even so, it haunts me daily,” she writes of the incident. Can this really be the worst thing that happened during that period?

Though Wildflower isn’t as wild as I hoped for, it certainly captures parts of Barrymore’s essence in ways that will please fellow Barrymore-ians (Barrystas?). I remember reading years ago that she used to eat a lot of avocados, one of those pointless facts that nonetheless stuck around in my brain, and lo and behold, I was delighted to read about the avocado tree in her childhood backyard: “[T]he significance of the avocado tree is still as strong as can be for me. I even have it in my will that I want to be buried under one, or have some of my ashes put there.” Again with the ashes! I was also a big fan of Olive, the Other Reindeer, Barrymore’s 1999 animated TV Christmas special (who among us wasn’t?), so it was gratifying to see the connection between it and Drew naming her first daughter Olive. The style of the book suggests that Barrymore wrote it herself rather than using a ghostwriter: It is peppy, over-exclamation-pointed, vague at times. I suspect that if there were a way to feed the contents of the book into a computer with artificial intelligence, someone could create from it a program capable of responding to texts in Drew Barrymore–like snippets, a service I would find very uplifting indeed.

About the time she flashed David Letterman (she really has done it all!), Barrymore writes, “I was in a very free state in my life. This is something I struggle with as a mom because now that I have grown up, I couldn’t feel more passionate about being appropriate.” “Being appropriate” strikes me as something most people do not feel “passionate” about. Reading about Barrymore’s life, I was oddly reminded of The Corrections. Barrymore has worked so hard to make her time with her children everything her own childhood wasn’t, to correct the mistakes her parents made, and I suspect she’s had to be stubborn to will it all to work out this way. So stubborn that she probably didn’t want to revisit the worst parts of it. It’s an admirable quality and probably a sound coping strategy, but storytelling-wise it leaves something to be desired. I am happy that Barrymore is happy, but I was less than thrilled, for instance, by the chapters in her book titled “Domestic Bliss,” about how she once tried and failed to make special pancakes for her perfect husband Will, or “In-Law Jackpot,” about how fantastic her in-laws are. This is the kind of thing that gets boring page after page. If you’re going to write about how perfect your life is, perhaps a better medium would be the overly long Instagram caption, a more concise vehicle for personality-expression. That I would certainly double-tap.