Sisterhood—in the family and body politic—can be a beautiful abstraction and a real pain in the neck. It's an evanescent ideal that sometimes takes shape in historic movements. And it's the cosmic force behind Sheila Weller as she tries to link the lives of three very different artists in "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation" (Atria, 584 pages, $27.95).
Weller links the trio to "the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle class in the early to mid 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s."
King is Weller's "everywoman." Coming of age in Brooklyn, inspired and influenced by black musicianship, King makes her way by dint of talent into the Brill Building, center of top-40 hitmakers. She and her partner, then-husband Gerry Goffin, chalk up a string of successful records before she turns 21. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" hits the charts as birth control pills are "reaching their first customers," Weller points out, allowing a young, single woman to declare herself "an emotional and sexually independent and responsible person."
Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter, became for Weller "the It girl and anthropologist of her newly coined female archetype, a rusticated American version of Left Bank femininity."
That Mitchell's material drew so many acolytes is a tribute to her talent and good fortune to have entered the slipstream when she did. Her best songs reflect confessional trends in '60s-era literature, the poems of Anne Sexton, the novels of Erica Jong, the new journalism of Joan Didion.
Simon, whose father co-founded the Simon & Schuster publishing house, came of age in an affluent intellectual society, and it "was from this talk-rich world that Carly's song had percolated," Weller writes. Her public persona was that of a sexually uninhibited freethinker. In the New York of her early songs, young women cavort like drunken dryads with chignons. She's a jet-set star who hangs out with Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis, marries and divorces James Taylor. Like us? Not so much.
Weller nevertheless holds fast to her premise and keeps up a crackling pace. All three life stories are like tops let loose at the same speed, each running down at its own pace. Although the author's scene setting is admirable, sometimes she compresses history with a steamroller, making very different events seem to carry equal weight.
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