I'll say this for memoirs: when I find a good one, there's really no nonfiction genre I enjoy more.
Last week I decided that it was time for me to read Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their lives together in late 1960s and early 1970s New York City. Just to be clear: I don't think I've ever heard a Patti Smith song*, and I really didn't know anything about Robert Mapplethorpe except that he was a famous and controversial photographer (actually, to be honest, all I really had was a sort of fuzzy recollection that he photographed a lot of nudes). I picked this one up simply because it won the National Book Award and showed up on nearly every "best of 2010" list, and I always like to keep an eye on what nonfiction titles are winning awards and showing up on lists.
I loved it. I really, really loved it. It didn't matter if I read it for five minutes or half an hour; it never failed to transport me to a completely different time and place. (And, as a girl who believes in safety first, and is not a drug user in any way, I can't say that 1970s New York City is a place I ever thought I'd want to be transported TO.) I felt like I was reading about eight books in one: a coming-of-age story; a vignette about New York City; a digression on the purposes of art; and a sweeping but bittersweet love story. Every day I would read in it, and every night at supper I would bore Mr. CR with stories from it.
A large part of the appeal of this memoir was, as it so often is with memoirs, character (and, by extension, voice). I found myself just really loving Patti Smith. Early on there is an interlude, before she goes to New York, when she becomes pregnant at age 19:
"When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble. In 1966, at summer's end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I and we conceived instantaneously. I consulted a doctor who doubted my concern, waving me off with a somewhat bemused lecture on the female cycle. But as the weeks passed, I knew that I was carrying a child..."
She continues, explaining how she "relieved the boy of his responsibility," and how she listened to her parents and family in the kitchen, knowing she would have to tell them she was pregnant. And then:
"It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would never return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen." (p. 18.)
She had the baby and gave it up for adoption, and felt she had done the right thing, but even after she went to NYC and met Mapplethorpe, the experience stayed with her:
"Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhuasted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie." (p. 42.)
I don't know why those bits appealed to me so; they just made me really, really like Patti Smith. I even liked Mapplethorpe, by extension, for calling her Soakie (affectionately).
More tomorrow on this book, whether you want to hear more about it or not.
*I've heard songs written by Patti Smith, especially "Because the Night." Unfortunately, it's one of my least favorite songs ever, as Natalie Merchant did a cover of it that was, to put it lightly, OVERPLAYED on the radio. (The years I lived with my brother, a certified Natalie Merchant fanatic, and he would play her CDs every morning, also did not make me feel more kindly towards Ms. Merchant.)