three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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The Life of Édith Piaf

missing imageAustralian-born Carolyn Burke is the author of two biographies, Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (1996) and Lee Miller: A Life (2005), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has taught at Princeton, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Davis, and the Sorbonne.

The Topic: Born Édith Giovanna Gassion to traveling street performers in December 1915, France's waiflike "Little Sparrow" began singing in the streets of Paris's red light district, Pigalle, at the age of 14. In 1935, notorious nightclub owner Louis Leplée discovered her, renamed her Édith Piaf (French slang for "sparrow"), and groomed her for the stage. Piaf's distinctive voice and unparalleled showmanship quickly earned her fame and fortune in her native France, but the years following World War II propelled her to international stardom. However, Piaf lived as passionately as she sang. Her personal tragedies (including alcoholism and drug addiction) and her ceaseless quest for l'amour finally took their toll, and "the chanteuse who reached across social, linguistic and national divides" succumbed to liver cancer in 1963.
Knopf. 304 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780307268013

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Noting that Piaf's musicianship and powerful lyric writing often are ignored in favor of more tabloid-like accounts of her romantic liaisons and personal tragedies, Burke (whose two previous biographies were about women who spent much of their lives in Paris ...) proceeds to correct the record without sanitizing it. She also deftly positions Piaf in the events of her time." Hedy Weiss

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Piaf has been given good service by Burke, the latest of many biographers but one of only a few writing in English and, more important, that rarity among Piaf biographers, one more interested in the truth than the legend. Achieving truth in biography is impossible, but Burke's Piaf seems very close to the real thing." Jonathan Yardley

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"If risk was Piaf's hallmark, caution and restraint are Burke's--an approach that often seems at odds with the story of this impetuous fireball. ... In a book about an artist who proudly revealed all, Burke's politeness can be frustrating. Even so, nonmavens who want a sound overview of Piaf's life will find it here." James Gavin

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Most unsatisfactorily, Piaf's long line of manipulatively tawdry, tacky and possessive love affairs with exceedingly young, naive men dependent on her for their livelihoods is silently accepted in No Regrets as a kind of ‘droit de diva.' Although clearly and sympathetically written, this biography leaves us with the feeling that Piaf, like all of us, really should have had at least a few regrets." Benjamin Ivry

Wall Street Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"She conveys little of the woman's romance and passion, an odd approach to a subject who wore not only her heart on her sleeve but also her liver and spleen. ... Ms. Burke's somewhat lackluster account, with its reliance on the most cursory synthesis, qualifies more as a long string of events that never quite add up to a compelling portrayal." Mark Polizzotti

Critical Summary

Dismissing the myths and rumors surrounding Piaf's life, Burke provides a thoughtful and gracious examination of the legendary chanteuse and a vivid rendering of 20th-century Europe's tumultuous landscape. However, some critics cried foul even as they commended Burke for her elegant prose and steadfast loyalty to the truth. "She rejects the apocryphal, precedes conjecture with ‘perhaps' and avoids casting anyone in too harsh a light," noted the New York Times Book Review before questioning whether Burke had played it too safe. The result is a slightly bland and superficial recitation of facts rather than the vibrant portrait befitting this fiery and passionate artist. Nevertheless, readers in search of an accurate, straightforward introduction to the Little Sparrow will find much to admire in No Regrets.