One-Minute Book Reviews

April 9, 2008

Out, Damn’d Ferrari! Father Doesn’t Know Best in Liza Campbell’s ‘A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle’

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:16 am
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Hail falls on the family of a modern Thane of Cawdor

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. By Liza Campbell. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 323 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A Charmed Life is a high-class version of that deathless series in the Star, “Stars Without Make-up.” Instead of mascara-free actresses, this memoir gives us sobriety-free Scottish aristocrats.

At the age of 30, Hugh Campbell inherited the title of Thane of Cawdor and vast wealth that included two stately homes, four ruined castles and a hundred thousand acres of land. He promptly moved his wife and children from their estate in Wales to the family seat, Cawdor Castle, in the Scottish Highlands. The new home became his Dunsinane, or so it appears from A Charmed Life.

Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief. As the idea of free love had spread in the 1960s, he went “haywire with the frontrunners,” his daughter Liza writes:

“He dressed like a Restoration buck, wearing scarlet velvet jackets with black frogging, floppy cuffs and outsize buckles on his belts and shoes, the heels of which were covered in red patent leather to match the jacket.”

At Cawdor, the new thane devolved into an alcoholic, cocaine-addicted, serial adulterer who drove away his sainted first wife and deprived his son his birthright, his daughter says. He also smashed up a fleet of Jaguars and, insisting that the cause of his accidents lay in their faulty design, took to driving a lime-green Ferrari. His widow, his second wife, has disputed some of this in the British media. And Campbell sinks into pop-psychological goop when she tries to explain her father’s pathology: She says that when her paternal grandfather broke his wife’s toe, “he showed his son that physical abuse was an option” – as though there weren’t men who have seen such force without resorting to it or who resort to it without having seen it.

But Campbell is better reporter than analyst of her family’s woes, and she describes an offbeat cast of friends and relatives with a flair that occasionally resembles Nancy Mitford’s in Love in a Cold Climate. A friend of her grandfather’s preferred ferns to toilet paper and, when he traveled south from his Scottish palace, “took along a suitcase packed with bracken fronds, since London hotels were unable to cater for this particular requirement.” An aunt met her husband at Oxford “where he would wander through the quads in a top hat with a pet mouse that ran round the brim.”

Such vivid glimpses of a vanishing world help to make this book more than another memoir of an imploding family. So do Campbell’s wit, sharp observations on life and refusal to tack on the artificially upbeat ending of so many American memoirs of family turbulence. Her chilling comment on a hunting accident that left a farmer’s teenage son with terrible groin injuries sums up a theme of this book:

“It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

Best line: “Of all the things drummed into us, the only ones with any application to the modern world were the importance of being polite to strangers, and a sketchy knowledge of trees.”

Worst line: “Something that is seldom acknowledged is how incredibly common addiction is – maybe as high as one in three.” Don’t they get Oprah in the U.K.?

Published: October 2007

Read an excerpt at

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this review, have much to say on the topic of children at the dinner table, though mine would wax more toward the behavior of American children’s parents in public and your awards list of who won/who didn’t back to the early 1900s has me champing at the bit for a B&N stop, one which I haven’t made in nearly 8 days and count it as doing very well, thank you.
    But this Charmed Life has put me over the top and I must go see as well as pick up CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY as I mentioned several blogs ago that I would try.

    Thanks, as always!

    Comment by oh — April 9, 2008 @ 12:41 am | Reply

  2. You’re very welcome! Awards weeks are always a little hectic on One-Minute Book Reviews (and bring extra work), so I really appreciate knowing that it is not all in vain …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 9, 2008 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  3. What is the proper way to review a review, anyway?

    In the absence of anything better, I will add that I also thoroughly enjoyed this review.

    Best line: “Hugh Campbell seems to have had a self-destructive romantic streak long before the move to Cawdor threw it into ionospheric relief.”

    Worst line: Just…none!

    Thanks for putting so much heart into these reviews. And wondering how you accomplish it all!

    Comment by ggelliott — April 9, 2008 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

  4. Bless you! I’m so lucky to have been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland for 11 years and the book columnist for Glamour for about 3 before that. Those two jobs have given me a mental trust fund of books that I can draw on as needed, which really helps during weeks like this one when I’m feeling stretched.

    I also find comments like yours so heartening (and an inspiration to keep trying to post often). Thank you so much …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 10, 2008 @ 12:23 am | Reply

  5. “It was my first realization that something profound and permanent can happen in an instant and, worse, never be undone. It took a while to realize that life doesn’t deliver a single such instance, but an endless series of them.”

    You’re right, what an incredibly chilling observation! Makes me want to read more so that I can fully understand why Liza feels like this.

    Coming from Scotland myself I can confirm that alcoholism is a major issue over here. Not surprising really, given that until yesterday alcohol sponsors were allowed to advertise their products on children’s football strips. Imagine, little football fans running all over Glasgow sporting tops promoting Carling Beer! Madness, I know! But, I digress…

    To be honest I’ve seen this book in bookstores in the past but I had always dismissed it as ‘not for me’. But I might just read it now following your review!

    Comment by The Social Librarian — April 10, 2008 @ 5:49 am | Reply

  6. You are so right about alcohol and Scotland. If I remember correctly, it has one of the highest alcoholism rates in Europe (if not the highest). I’ve never quite understood why. The easy access to those great single malts doesn’t seem to explain it fully, does it?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 10, 2008 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  7. Very insightful book. I saw it as a tragedy of human proportions. Could not believe how many words I didn’t know. Always running off to the dictionary, but I’m glad I struggled through. Grew up in Glasgow, always hating the “snobs”. This book reminds me that life is not about who you are, or where you came from, but who you become. You triumphed with this book…..and life. You must be a fantastic mum!

    Comment by spolli007 — December 30, 2008 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

    • Hope the author of the book sees your kind comment. I’m the critic (and not a mother) and, over the holidays, thought about her descriptions of Christmas at the castle :).

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 31, 2008 @ 12:36 am | Reply

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