Sometimes you start a book with a bit of curiosity about the main protagonist but low expectations overall, and end up spellbound by both the compelling life story and the great writing. "Scars of Sweet Paradise" by Alice Echols, about singer Janis Joplin, is one of those books. Joplin is famous now both for her remarkable musicianship and unique voice (she was the first female rockstar), and for her death of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in October 1970. (Read her obit in the New York Times here.)
What I loved most about the book was that Echols makes Joplin come alive as a human being whose brashness and loudness hid severe insecurities about her physique and who struggled with a loneliness she could never overcome. Echols also gives a remarkable portrayal of Joplin's long descent into drugs, in spite of her attempts to get clean, in addition to her abuse of alcohol. You can't help but empathize with Joplin when you read the parts about her childhood and teenage years in Port Arthur, her short-lived attempt to fit in after she returned to Texas following her first San Francisco stint -- engaged to be married to a con artist who had another girlfriend on the side and had no intention of marrying her, if you can believe it -- as well as the spectacular failure of her 10th year high school reunion where she continued to face sneers, contempt and disapproval.
My sense is that her alienation in Port Arthur played a key role in Joplin's developing the musicianship that made her famous - people who fit in, the homecoming king/queen types who are popular in high school, just don't offer a novel way to view the world that would make them compelling artists or creative types in general. Yet, plenty of alienated teenagers dream of moving to San Francisco but never turn into world-famous musicians. Echols's narrative doesn't give Joplin's rise to stardom a sense of inevitability - we struggle with her every step of the way - but she doesn't diminish her protagonist's drive either: Joplin's determination shines through at every page.
It is hard to imagine now what life and career she would've had, had she lived. If she had survived the OD in October 1970 (45 years ago in a few months!), would she have changed her ways? would she have sunk into irrelevance? We're left with a couple of timeless songs such as "Piece of my heart" and a greatest-hits collection.
Rating: five stars out of five.