Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: American Rose

American Rose
American Rose by Karen Abbott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read much nonfiction, but the subject matter of this one interested me. I don't know much about the 1920's and '30's, and all I know of Gypsy Rose Lee is the movie (I've seen the 1962 version with Natalie Wood, and the 1993 made-for-TV version). The book reads well, to a layperson, but it fails to deliver on some promises in the introduction.

I've browsed some biographical information since reading the book, just to see where Abbott comes up with the notion that Gypsy Rose Lee's biography is confusing. She writes in the introduction that the story she uncovers is very different from that in the Broadway musical and movie, but then goes on to reveal very little that doesn't happen in the musical. A lot of the events are sanitized, which is what I'd expect, or they're cast in a nicer light. But I've seen Hollywood versions of true events that veer far more off-course. She does have a point that there are contradictory accounts of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, but starting it off that she's going to debunk the events of the musical is misleading. I kept waiting for something directly contradictory.

The informative parts come in after the events of the movie, and in the culture surrounding Gypsy Rose Lee. The book does a good job of framing the biography within the context of the time, and eliminating any notions the reader might have of Hayes-Code-era Hollywood (and other cultural centers) being pure and clean. I had never heard of the Minske brothers before, and had no idea the role they'd played in a depression-era New York City.

As an audio book, though, this is hard to follow. The book skips around in time, telling flashbacks within time periods that makes it difficult to place, then reverting us back to "present day" without warning. The later time periods are told in present tense, which was jarring and took some getting used to. Additionally, we're given three sections on the aforementioned Minskes before they have any relevance to the rest of the events. Those sections are given without any regard to the Hovic timeline, or the "Gypsy in present tense" sections. It seemed like a hodgepodge of information, sometimes, and I wondered why the author would choose to tell the story in a way that deliberately confuses readers.

Overall, though, this was an interesting narrative that told me a lot about the subject matter in the title, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the seedier side of the early days of Broadway, or what people spent their money on during the Great Depression. It would probably make a better text version than audio book, though; had I been able to flip back to place myself in time, I would've followed it a lot better.

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