Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Book Review: Lead Sister

As one of the biggest-selling acts of the 1970s, the Carpenters are celebrated for their melodic pop and unforgettable hits like “Close to You,” “Yesterday,” and “Top of the World.” Though Karen is rightly recognized as one of the greatest singers in popular music, the tragedy of her early death in 1983 at the young age of just thirty-two sometimes overshadows her incredible achievements. She has often been portrayed as a victim, controlled by her family and exploited by the music industry.

Forty years after her death, this biography reframes her life and legacy as a pioneering woman with her own vision and agency. With exclusive interviews with friends, musicians, and collaborators, bestselling author Lucy O’Brien explores Karen’s contributions as a singer, drummer, arranger, and producer, and traces the roots of the Carpenters’ iconic sound.

Lead Sister also honors Karen’s triumphs in the face of her struggle with anorexia, providing contemporary perspectives on eating disorders and mental health. Despite the chronic nature of her illness, Karen Carpenter was, above all, a creative, dedicated, and assured artist whose music delivers an emotional resonance that has transcended generations—and that is how she should be remembered.

Lead Sister: The Story of Karen Carpenter will be published October 15, 2023. Rowman and Littlefield provided an early galley for review.

As a child of the early 70's, Karen's voice was ever-present on the radio and television. With the voice of an angel and looks to match, it was no surprise that she rose to such an iconic status in the music industry. And though I was very familiar with her life story, one that ended tragically much too soon, I was interested to see what kind of angle O'Brien would utilize for her take.

Of course, all the expected elements are here. We get the first two chapters covering her early home life and early teen years. From there, as she started to perform with her brother Richard, we slide into a chapter-per-year of her life. All the details of their rise and recordings are touched upon, as expected. However, there were several incidents in her life story that were new to me as well. So, I definitely got some additional details from this one. Also, as described, we see Karen's strength and important contributions to the group's success, despite all the obstacles that were thrown up by family and others. We also are able to see how all of this pressure and unhappiness fed into her mental and physical ailments.

The last chapters carry the most power as well as the most analysis. These were also the ones where I learned the most about her story - about her disastrous marriage, her work on her one solo album that eventually was released well-after her death, and the efforts she took to hide her illness from the world.

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