This memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who grew up sometimes welcomed by her father, Steve Jobs, but just as often shunned, has been hotly anticipated on two fronts. First, it’s a reasonably painful look inside a famous family, with an air of secrets and gossip. Second, Brennan-Jobs is a fabulous writer, who promises to do justice to her high-stakes topic. Who better to tell the story of the Apple co-founder, an opaque figure who’s done so much to shape our century, than this author, who holds both the access of the insider and the judgement of the critic, and has charged and personal reasons to scrutinise his world?
The author’s parents had her young, and Jobs famously denied paternity; when Brennan-Jobs was four years old, Jobs hinted in an article in Time magazine that her mother had lied to him and slept with many men, and that “Twenty-eight percent of the male population of the United States could be the father.” A mystery of the author’s childhood (and beyond) is the naming of the Lisa computer, a precursor to the Macintosh that Jobs would not admit was named after his daughter until long into her adulthood. The confession naturally came while on holiday with Bono.
Her mother is clever, expressive, frustrated and complicated. She shouts about “this hell life”. Brennan-Jobs’s father remains a locked box – chilly, vulnerable, open to interpretation, and therefore a figure of fascination. Growing up with Jobs and sometimes well away from him is a perfect training ground for the memoirist. The details of Jobs’s parenting are often horrifying, with several standout scenes that will inform the public understanding of his character. This makes it all the more admirable and interesting that the book’s standout quality is an even-handed commitment to nuance. It’s beautiful in its capacity to notice and interpret and its refusal to condemn. Brennan-Jobs learns early from her mother not to see characters as good guys or bad guys, even though to her young self “such titles, such a color, offered relief because they seemed like ledges where one could rest”.
The story mostly ends with the author on exchange in London and noticing ads for candy-coloured iMacs, so its serves as a prehistory to Apple in its best-known era. It covers familiar territory – the difficult celebrity parent – and takes a familiar form, but the result is a robust and sturdy memoir, noteworthy for its emotional seriousness. CR
Grove Press, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 8, 2018 as "Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Small Fry ". Subscribe here.