The Time of My Life

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The Time of My Life , Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi, book reviewWhen Patrick Swayze’s character Johnny Castle ran his fingers down the arm of Jennifer Grey’s character ‘Baby’ in the 1980s film Dirty Dancing, women watching in cinemas around the world let out a collective groan of pleasure that was probably not matched until decades later when Daniel Craig stepped out of the sea in Casino Royale in ‘those’ swimming trunks. For most of us Johnny was the role that made Swayze a major sex symbol and paved the way for his other great love story, Ghost. What I and many others didn’t realise was that Swayze was already an old hand in the industry with plenty of aggressive he-man adventure films already in the can. The same women – and many more – let out a groan of anguish in 2009 when Swayze’s death from pancreatic cancer was announced. It was like a part of our past, a part of our shared cultural heritage had gone. As Swayze himself joked “Nobody puts Patrick Swayze’s pancreas in a corner”. For me it was not the first death to make me feel I was maybe getting to an age where people I’d loved and admired were starting to die. The first had been Joe Strummer of the Clash, the next the tragic death of Kirsty McColl – maybe we are judged by our dead idols.

Patrick Swayze and his wife Lisa Niemi wrote The Time of My Life after Swayze knew he was living on borrowed time. Towards the end of 2007 he went for tests at the hospital after some digestive problems. The worst case he imagined was pancreatitis – the truth was altogether more horrifying. Thanks to Swayze and more recently Steve Jobs, there can be few people unaware that pancreatic cancer is a death sentence. The question is rarely whether it will kill – the only unknown is how long you get. I suspect that this book was written with a sense of urgency to record a life well and fully lived and that the urgency gave the book a brevity and focus that’s rare amongst the many self-promoting navel-gazing celebrity autobiographies that line up to grab the Christmas book market. When you look at all that Swayze squeezed into his life, this could have been a book of 500 pages rather than the rather more modest 246 pages.

Swayze was born the second child and eldest son of a Texas cowboy father and a mother who ran a dance studio so the love of both horses and dance were in his DNA. He was blessed with phenomenal talent; he played football (the American sort) to a standard likely to get him a scholarship, was training for the US junior Olympic gymnastics squad, was an outstanding dancer and a musician. Being the kid with the ballet shoes in his bag and his violin in the other hand made him the target of bullies until his dad taught him to fight, a talent which would stand him in great stead in later life and be demonstrated repeatedly in his films.

One by one Swayze’s dreams were destroyed. A bad tackle on the field stopped his football career; a misjudged dismount in practice wrecked his Olympic gymnastics dream and so he focused on ballet, only to find his multiply fractured and damaged body couldn’t match his ambitions. Acting was the one thing in which he never lost his interest and which was always big enough to offer new challenges. But arguable, despite its ups and downs, his obsessive tendency to ‘live the film’ and some compulsive drinking after his father’s death, Swayze’s greatest enduring success was his marriage to Lisa Niemi, the girl he fell for when she was just 15 and training at his mother’s dance class. The Time of My Life is as much the story of their relationship as it is of Swayze’s career, though despite the double billing on the cover, this is Patrick’s story and Lisa – once again fulfilling the supporting actor role to his lead – is not the voice that delivers the story.

“…this is a love story that proves that celebrities can occasionally really get it right.”

This is a book for the Swayze fan more than anything else. It’s not going to satisfy the tragedy tourist who’s looking for a cancer saga and an account of the actor feeling sorry for himself. I have read a lot of first hand accounts of illness and tragedy and I’m happy to say that The Time of My Life will not satisfy anyone who wants the gory details of this awful disease. This book is about Swayze’s LIFE and his impending death pops up almost like an afterthought in the final chapter and serves only to stimulate the need to record the highs and lows of his time on earth.

Swayze’s story is that of a man who squeezed life so hard that the pips were squeaking, who climbed every mountain and when his body said it could take no more, he went off in search of another mountain and then another, and yet another. The outward appearance of physical perfection which contributed to his stardom – and which led my much younger colleague to pick up the book and exclaim “Wow, what a hottie!” – concealed an impressive count of broken bones, torn muscles and the scars of multiple near death experiences. His mother and wife must have dreaded every phone call that revealed each more stupid accident. He was a true daredevil, a fighter and a perfectionist, who loved to do his own stunts and take risks, who didn’t know the meaning of can’t or understand the word ‘Stop!’.

This is a beautiful account of a very special relationship which stood the test of time in an industry where infidelity and vanity destroy so many marriages. Niemi has said in interviews that despite the world thinking Swayze had women falling at his feet, she never had any reason to suspect him of cheating on her in their 34 year marriage. The book is Swayze’s parting gift to both Lisa and to his fans – a love letter to the former and a thank you to the latter. It’s written in a simple and straight forward style that delivers what needs to be said without dressing up every little achievement as it if were something major. If anything Swayze is disarmingly modest and very matter-of-fact about his achievement, open about his battle to avoid being typecast as an actor who fights, an actor who dances, and to stay away from any of the pigeon holes his industry offered him. I learned a lot about this remarkable and beautiful man and the wonderful woman who shared his life. The Time of My Life is a moving and very sweet record of a very special relationship and is a book which his fans will love and those who barely knew him will still find interesting. For those of us who sometimes need to believe in the possibility of happy ever after and ‘til death us do part’ this is a love story that proves that celebrities can occasionally really get it right.

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Time of My Life, The
by Patrick Swayze

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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