To the casual observer, John Lennon's wife was Yoko Ono. However, those who know more about the Beatles' history and background know that before Yoko, John was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and in fact had spent a decade of his life with her before cheating with Ono an leaving her. Always one to shy from the limelight of Beatlemania during the 1960s and content to be a housewife raising their young son Julian, Cynthia had arguably the best perspective on John's life during the most famous period of his life. While she had written a book about her first marriage in the late 1970s called A Twist of Lennon, it wasn't until the late 2000s that a more comprehensive and thorough look at her time was published: the current book titled simply John. Even though I read it when it came out, I've given it a fresh re-reading for this review.
The book begins with an interesting, heartfelt, and candid introduction from Julian Lennon describing the father who "let me down in so many ways." It's rather heartbreaking to read of Julian's love for his father, while he fully understood from a young age that while his dad sang to the world about love and peace, he gave little-to-none of either to the wife and child he abandoned in 1968. From here, Cynthia begins the book with details about her birth and childhood in Liverpool during WWII. Born in 1939 as the youngest of three children, Cynthia, like John, suffered the unexpected death of a parent while she was a teenager. In her case, it was her father and she handled it, at least from an emotional standpoint, better than John did the death of his mother. It was while a student at art school in Liverpool that she first met John in 1958. After being initially wary of him, they ended up falling in love and even though John's jealousy, insecurity, and aggression meant that their relationship was a bit stormy (including an incident Cynthia recounts where John smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground), there was genuine love and affection for her on John's part. I'm not going to recount the Beatles' history during this period as it's been written about to death elsewhere and Cynthia does a good job summarizing it in the book as it goes along. What does stand out are the countless anecdotes about John where he is boorish, insensitive, uncaring, and just downright nasty. While she does balance these out with stories of his kindness and generosity (especially with his money, which is well-known), as the Beatles' career progressed and his drug use (which she states was the #1 contributor to the demise of their marriage) increased, these became fewer and further between. She suspected that there was something going on with Yoko from the first time she met her in 1967, but was still stunned when she walked in on John and Yoko in 1968. Amazingly, John went back to Cynthia for a very short time and played it off as a one-off fling until leaving for good and abandoning her and their son. The divorce was nasty although, as she fully admits, Cynthia accepted a ridiculously low settlement offer when she could've gotten so much more. What was surprising was that even in light of this treatment at John's hands, she never stopped loving him and spent the next dozen years up to John's murder wishing for them to be friends again, both for Julian's sake and for hers. Sadly, it never happened.
From here, the book details her life bringing up Julian on her own and how his father's abandonment affected him. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly cruel and it's hard not to feel anger at John when reading some of the things he said and did to his young son. Over the next couple of decades, Cynthia had two more failed marriages and another long term relationship that ended before she finally found the right match with her fourth (and final) husband, Noel Charles, in 2002. To her credit, she's very self-aware and reflective throughout the book, realizing that was much too accommodating and deferential to John, and not assertive enough in standing up to him during their marriage. She also admits to rushing into her post-John relationships despite having reservations about all three men. Her stories of Yoko's manipulations and harsh treatment of Julian, especially after John's death, are equally upsetting. Although Cynthia never comes across as being mean-spirited or out to tell salacious tales, it's hard not to be disgusted with the way John and (especially) Yoko treated them. Still, I don't doubt as to the veracity of the stories as not only have they been corroborated elsewhere, but none of them are anything other than entirely believable and in keeping with John and Yoko's behavior. Likewise, her candidness when discussing John's Aunt Mimi is refreshing. Her portrait of Mimi as emotionally cold, distant, and jealous of anyone else who got close to John, as well as Mimi being incredibly class conscious and snobby jibes with much of what's been written about her elsewhere. This is despite Mimi's attempts to soften her own image in later years with the numerous interviews she gave. I realize that we all have preconceived biases when we read something and that I'm perhaps tipping my hand as to how mine lean, but I didn't find anything in this book that ran against what I already thought about the main players in John's life.
The biggest thing that comes through in the book is how caring and supportive in general Cynthia was as a person. She has an especially close and loving relationship with Julian and everything she did to support him and make sure he became a fine grown man are testament to what kind of person she was. The book ended with a somewhat chilling admission that, while she never regrets having her son, had she known in 1958 what falling for John Lennon would do to her life, she would go back, turn around, and walk away from him. This is one of those books that will make you see John in a much less flattering light, especially if you held him in high regard beforehand. I've always been someone who admired his music and much of his life, but also knew about his many flaws and how poorly he could treat people. For me, it didn't change my opinion of him as much as it simply confirmed how I felt about his failings and shortcomings. As Cynthia rightly pointed out, he was a brilliantly creative genius who was also incredibly complex and flawed. The overall tone of the book is somewhat bleak and downcast, but given John's treatment of her and how much of a struggle her life was after their marriage broke up, it's quite understandable. If you hero-worship John Lennon, then this probably isn't the book for you, but if you've got a more balanced and realistic view of the man, this book (despite its few flaws) will give you a fairly accurate portrait of the man from the woman who was by his side for the most famous decade of his life.
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