[xrr rating=3.5/5]At first glance, Edith Piaf’s life seems to follow the standard story arc of the 20th century rock star. Her narrative as told in No Regrets by Carolyn Burke seems picture perfect for a biopic (three have been made) because it can be condensed into a well-known formula. She was born into a poor existence with divorced parents, a number of tragedies hit in quick succession, she goes through a rise, a fall, a resurrection; she experiences an increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol to keep on going and finally, she succumbs to an untimely and early death. However, a closer look reveals that there is a lot of Piaf’s life that isn’t standard. She grew up in the Paris of the ‘20s and ‘30s. This oft-romanticized era plays host to such names as Hemingway, Dali, Fitzgerald and Man Ray. Originally thought to be a German collaborator during World War II because she often performed for German soldiers, it was later revealed that she in fact had helped several Jews escape the Nazis. This is not the story we are used to hearing about our celebrities.

Piaf’s early life is shrouded in ambiguity. Two memoirs, published in 1958 and 1964, often contrast with each other. Her own interviews – conducted as her star power was rising – do not help, as she often made up details to fit into a narrative she was trying to sell the public. Adding testimonies of associates and relatives further muddle the picture. In No Regrets, Burke does a great job at sifting through all this material and presenting the most likely story, always with the caveat that no one actually knows what happened.

We do know that Piaf was born as Edith Giovanna Gassion to a traveling circus acrobat of a father and mother who sang and had a drug habit. She ended up living with her grandmother, who ran a brothel. She also conquered a bout with blindness; Piaf claims that she miraculously regained her sight after the girls in the brothel took her to the grave of Saint Therese, but she actually fought off blindness due to a doctor recommending an ointment and wrapping her eyes in bandages so they could rest. Eventually, her father reclaimed her and started having her sing for tips on street corners.

She soon moved to Paris’ red light district and sang her way up to a prestigious cabaret. Following quickly was a film role and her first recordings. By the end of the ‘30s, she was among the French musical elite and after WWII she became a world-wide star. The rest of her life she spent trying to stay on top amongst a myriad of lovers and enablers who did next to nothing to deter her growing dependence on drugs. She insisted the drugs gave her the strength to keep performing for her fans. Finally in 1963, she gave in to the drugs, repeated car accidents and pure stress she had been putting on her body for the past 25 years and passed away at the age of 47.

Australian Burke first heard of Piaf while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris during the late ‘50s. While learning French, she tried to emulate Piaf’s titi accent of the Parisian lower classes. Returning to Paris during Piaf’s revival in 1961, Burke strove to replicate her further through the cadence of the famous “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s obvious Burke has a great adoration of Piaf, as well as other female Parisian icons of the ‘20s and ‘30s (she has written two other biographies – on Lee Miller and Mina Loy). However, this means that Piaf’s biography reads as a blind tribute.

On the other hand, Burke’s experiences in France give her the background to paint a vivid picture of Paris and the national mood during Piaf’s life. Her portrayal of the underworld in the ‘20s and ‘30s is in direct contrast to the Paris usually shown during that time – full of culture, cafes and artistic celebrities. When a new chapter is started, politics is often among the first bits of information provided. There is much more modern French history in No Regrets than one would think, which serves to enhance the story. Burke serves all of this up in a very clear voice, making No Regrets an easy read.

Any biographer of Piaf is going to come up against the problem of how to portray the dizzying array of men and acquaintances that passed through Piaf’s life. So many minor characters appear only once. There are also characters that appear for a brief moment only to resurface years later as a major player after a number of other names have been introduced. The way Burke approaches it – seemingly naming almost every character involved with Piaf – is not a successful way. Unfortunately, this is a major issue in the book. I often had to flip back several pages just to get all the characters straight in my head.

The problem with a lot of popular biographies is that they are written by adoring authors to sell and paint a rosy picture of the subject, which makes most biographies come off as stale and repetitive. Unfortunately, No Regrets falls into this category as well. Piaf is praised throughout the whole book; in fact, it is rare that Burke harshly condemns anyone involved in Piaf’s life. In essence, Burke did what she set out to do: told the story of Piaf’s life. If that’s all one wants out of a biography, one would be hard pressed to find a better one than this. However, that is all that anyone will get out of this book. The book is lacking in the criticism and the objectiveness that can turn a biography from a simple retelling of a life story into an extraordinary portrait of a life.

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