Rhoda

Book Review: "I, Rhoda" by Valerie Harper

I didn’t hear about the bio I, Rhoda by Valerie Harper through friends or articles or ads anywhere. I actually happened to pass The Jeff Probst talk show one night in January while surfing through channels and saw Jeff interviewing Valerie Harper. It was the first interview I’d seen Harper give in a long time and I was amazed at how young she looked. I was also amazed at how well the interview went and I’ve become a fan of Jeff Probst’s show as a result.

I hadn’t planned on reading anymore bios, autobios, or memoirs at that particular time, but as a long time fan of Valerie (and Rhoda) I bought the digital book on Kindle anyway. I know they are advertising this as a memoir, but I thought it was more biography than memoir. I’ve always thought of memoir as being a certain isolated segment of a person’s life. But this book covered Valerie’s life from the beginning up until the time she was nominated for a Tony award on Broadway. And that was NOT a disappointment by any means. I’m glad it was more biography because I discovered things about Valerie I never knew…like where she grew up, where she studied, what it was like to work with people like Lucille Ball on Broadway when Ball did the show, Wildcat. So you’re getting a lot more with this book than what you might think you are getting from the way it’s been promoted in some places.

The beginning of the book seems to build up to a pivotal point in Valerie’s life: when she landed the part of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Everything that leads up to this point is well-crafted, moves at a nice pace, and it shows how hard Valerie worked to get there. And it really does show; it doesn’t just tell…which made it a much nicer…smoother…read than a lot of non-fiction I see nowadays.

In the sections of the book where Valerie discusses playing Rhoda, she talks about her relationships with other cast members, her relationship with Mary Tyler Moore, her relationships with staff and crew, and also her personal relationships. But there’s nothing too dishy or gossipy about any of this. And that’s because I have never heard anyone, anywhere, trash anything about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They were hard working people who loved what they did and didn’t spend their free time looking for attention. From everything I’ve heard and read and seen, the people who were associated with that show did get along, did love every minute of what they did, and they focused on their craft the entire time. This is also a huge part of the book: Valerie’s work ethic. She wasn’t just a star. She was a working actress, a business woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and an artist. I don’t think I saw the word feminism in this book once, but she’s a good example of what feminism is all about.

After a great run as Rhoda, both on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and on her own sitcom, Rhoda, Valerie winds down this section of the book with bittersweet comments about how lucky she was to have had this experience and how thankful she was to have been part of something so wonderful. You really feel her gratitude and the love she had for the character of Rhoda. But it doesn’t end there, Valerie then moves the reader forward with the rest of her life and talks about how she moves forward as an actress, an artist, and a woman.

I found the section about her experiences with the TV sitcom in the 80’s, Valerie, honest and up front. I do remember that show well, and I was a huge fan of it. I’d read a lot about the dispute between Valerie and the producers, but never actually heard Valerie’s point of view about what happened and how she wound up leaving a show with her own name on it. And after reading this book I have a better understanding about what happened and how it affected Valerie, too. As a side note, I’d like to add one thing to this that Valerie didn’t mention in the book because she’s far too nice a person. Whenever there’s a hit TV show and producers don’t want to pay the star more…or even negotiate for better terms…it never ends well for the TV show itself. Think Delta Burke in Designing Women…or Suzanne Somers in Three’s Company. They were all different circumstances, and yet the end result turned out the same for each TV show. Once the main star leaves the show fails. I stopped watching Valerie the moment Valerie Harper wasn’t on anymore. The revised show, The Hogan Family, wasn’t entertaining. I also stopped watching Designing Women the moment Delta Burke wasn’t on anymore. And that’s just the way it is. Stars like Valerie Harper have that extra special thing that can’t be replaced no matter how hard producers try. Some things in life just can’t be replaced or duplicated.

In any event, I was just finishing the book when I learned about Valerie’s recent cancer diagnosis. I was right at the part where she had to battle lung cancer in 2009, and I was marveling at how brave she was and how well she handled it. For Valerie to come through that ordeal seemed like such a happy ending for a bio, and then I heard about the most recent brain cancer she’s now just beginning to deal with. From what I’ve read so far, she’s dealing with this cancer just like she’s handled all the things I read about her life in this book, with strength, pragmatism, honesty, and love. I think that’s what I liked most about the book, all the love I read between the lines. It’s truly a book about an honorable life well lived and loved, from beginning to end. And I would recommend it to anyone without thinking twice. You can purchase it here.