American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare
The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
By Karen Abbott
Audiobook Random House December 2010
I did it! I did it! I’ve only been listening to this book since December…
I was sucked in from the beginning because I loved the musical Gypsy, which I saw on Broadway a few years ago. The book opens with author Karen Abbott interviewing the elderly June Havoc, sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. She begins the book by saying that if you think you know about her family from that infamous musical, you don’t know anything. Of course I had to find out what really happened!
American Rose is a biography of Louise Hovick, who would become the infamous burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. The audiobook covers her life from her childhood on the show biz circuit in the shadow of her sister to her death from cancer. It focuses on her relationships with her mother and her sister June, as well as her triumphs and failures as one of the biggest stars of the 20th century. Gypsy Rose Lee became the face of burlesque, starred in movies, threw over the top parties, and carefully constructed a façade that showed the world exactly what she wanted them to see.
Unfortunately, author Karen Abbott does not stick to the history of Gypsy. Instead, she weaves other notable figures and events of the time into the narrative. This works some of the time. When we hear about the saga of the Minskys, the show biz family that helps Gypsy rise to the top, it enhances the story. But sometimes it's not clear how certain people connect to the story as a whole and I found myself wishing to to hear about strange and fascinating life of Gypsy instead.
This is even more frustrating when you are listening to the book instead of reading it. In addition to so many characters, the timeline is not linear. The writing jumps all over Gypsy’s life, leaving the reader to figure out where exactly they are and what has already happened. I would have preferred a linear telling and fewer auxiliary characters. The life and personality of our protagonist would more than have held up this book.
The narrator for this audiobook was Bernadette Dunn. I thought she did a great job. Her reading was understated. When you are dealing with personalities as big as Gypsy Rose Lee, it’s smarter to let her story and character shine through instead of trying to imitate her.
Gypsy Rose Lee is a fascinating character. When Ms. Abbott focuses on her, this biography shines. When she veers too far away from Gypsy, readers are left counting the minutes until we return. I would advise you to read the book instead of listening to the audio. The erratic timeline and plethora of characters are hard to keep track of in your head. If you are at all interested in burlesque or the seemingly larger than life Gypsy, American Rose is a good read for you.