As a whole, the genre of biography trends towards linear narratives—wherein the events of a subject’s life are tracked in the order that they occurred. This makes sense, as it’s how we live our lives, but there are advantages that come with non-linear structure. In the case of Karen Abbott’s American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life & Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (Random House, 2012), the benefit is that the book reads like a slick, sexy film noir and it is virtually impossible to put down.
The life of Gypsy Rose Lee- “this Dorothy Parker in a G-string”, famous for her “burlesque of burlesque”- is perhaps best likened to a Greek drama. The relationship between Gypsy, her controlling mother and the younger sister who stole her name offers enough material for a whole master’s thesis on Freud, and that’s just one of the many tangled relationship dynamics here worthy of analysis. And yet, Abbott exercises masterful control over her colorful cast of characters, all while guiding three separate narrative strands.
We enter the narrative at three distinct points and flip between them throughout: Gypsy, post-1939; Gypsy, pre-1939; and the Minsky Brothers burlesque clubs in the 1920s. If you’re not a biographile, the transitions might even slip by unnoticed, incrementally heightening the drama with each page until, at the book’s crescendo, you find you’re almost winded. American Rose is an ambitious story told in an ambitious style and, much like modern art, it looks effortless because it is impeccably well done.