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'The Last Love Song' by Tracy Daugherty: EW review

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The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

Current Status:
In Season
Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin's Press

We gave it an A-

In this first major biography of Joan Didion—written without the cooperation of the famously private author of such classics as Play It as It Lays and Slouching Towards Bethlehem—Daugherty tasks himself with separating the version of Didion we’ve come to know through her work from the real one and determining whether “the life reveal[s] the art, or the art the life.” With a combination of painstakingly detailed research (which can feel a bit overdone) and astute literary criticism, Daugherty approaches his project with the same style he ascribes to Didion’s work: “…to describe the surface…so thoroughly that its depths were exposed, like polishing wood until its grain came through.” 

Daugherty is at his best when he delves into literary criticism, and not when dissecting Didion’s personal life—judging her mothering skills, for example, or using her pioneer heritage to illustrate a point. He has a firm, clear grasp on her writing—how it evolved, how it fits into (and helped shape) the landscape of American literature, how her language illuminates her worldview. This grasp is so firm, in fact, that Daugherty employs the distinctly Didion-esque technique of repeating phrases throughout. Still, the book conjures as vivid a picture of this living legend as we are likely to get. A–