Marion Meade is best known for her biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Dorothy Parker, Madame Blavatsky, Woody Allen, and Buster Keaton.
The Topic: In 1940, a car accident claimed the lives of American writer Nathanael West and his wife Eileen McKenney. West was the 37-year-old author of the darkly comic novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), two masterpieces that were initially panned during his lifetime. McKenney, ten years his junior, was more famous as the pretty but vapid muse for her sister's best-selling book My Sister Eileen. In this dual biography, Meade chronicles the lives of the young couple--from their early childhood to their whirlwind romance, which ended tragically just eight months after their wedding.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 416 pages. $28. ISBN: 9780151011490
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[Meade] knows how to nail down terrific telling details and then dish them out in the most delightful way. It's a great marriage of scholarship and gossip." Laurie Hertzel
"Lonelyhearts could also be labeled a literary biography, although Meade's take on West's fiction is a bit crude, and the retro-slangy voice she adopts to tell the tale has driven at least one critic to distraction. ... Lonelyhearts works not in spite of its crass, gossipy aspects, but because of them." Laura Miller
"[R]ather peculiar. ... Precisely what inspired Marion Meade to write about [West and McKenney] is a mystery." Jonathan Yardley
New York Times
"It's a book that might have worked[,] too, if Ms. Meade's grating prose didn't drag it down at every turn. ... Worse by far are Ms. Meade's dismal readings of West's novels." Dwight Garner
Overall, critics were a bit perplexed by Meade's decision to write about West and McKenney; several didn't think the couple was interesting enough to appeal to modern readers. McKenney, in particular, was merely famous for being made famous (though we--and today's reality TV stars--are familiar with this concept). Others detected in the author's writing a distinct lack of empathy for her subjects and an irritating, overly familiar tone. On the positive side, Meade skillfully evokes the era, so for those interested in the Great Depression or Hollywood in the 1930s, this biography may be worth a peek.