Book Review: Little Girl Blue

Little Girl Blue:  The Life Of Karen Carpenter, by Randy L. Schmidt

It is easy to see why a story like this could not have been told with the permission and authorization of the surviving members of Karen Carpenter’s family.  It is a very mild understatement to say that this particular book does not make Carpenter’s family come off particularly well, nor, for that matter, her widower.  For those who want to read about one of the more tragic tales of music history [1], this book certainly has a lot to offer from those who are outside of the family circle, and it does shine a light on some of the more unpleasant aspects of her life and career and death.  No one would be willing to tell this sort of thing about themselves, and one has to wonder why indeed people need to know about this.  As someone who writes from time to time about the Carpenter’s, I am someone who seeks to place their career within its proper perspective as one of the most important in the history of music, and there is no question about Karen Carpenter’s influence on other artists, particularly as an emotive and expressive vocalist and as a talented drummer when girls did not tend to play the drums.  But I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason for the existence of this book.

For the most part, the author discusses his material in chronological order, starting with the childhood of the Carpenters and even of their parents and ending with the aftermath of her death with regards to the music of the group as well as the lives of those who were important to her.  In about 300 pages the author manages to tell a story of how a brother and sister were raised by a generally kind father and somewhat draconic mother and how they became music stars and dealt with the industry.  We witness their early relationships, their somewhat sheltered life at home, their time in college, and their clear ambitions to record and perform music.  We see the exploitative way that they were forced to tour themselves into exhaustion, compounded by Richard’s addiction to quaaludes and Karen’s anorexia, which included abuse of laxitives and ipecac syrup.  When tastes in music led to the group becoming less popular, their interpersonal struggles and health problems made it impossible for them to go on like before, and Karen’s death hangs over this book like a Greek tragedy, inevitable but harrowing all the same.

This particular book makes everyone involved feel a bit exploitative.  One sees the desperate and unsuccessful struggle of Karen Carpenter to establish her own identity by moving out, marrying (albeit unsuccessfully), and recording a solo album that is scrapped by their label of A&M when it diverges too much with her established identity.  One sees the jealousy that existed between the two siblings, where Richard was upset that people gave Karen so much attention because of her greater charisma despite his skill as a producer and instrumentalist, where Karen was jealous of any young woman who tried to compete with her for her brother’s love.  The author broaches, delicately, the question of incest given the nature of a sibling group with a controlling and dysfunctional family singing so many love songs, and leads the reader to think that there was likely emotional entanglement but nothing untoward going on physically.  Still, the group’s management seem like sharks for demanding so much touring from such fragile people and the Carpenters as a family come off badly, and even the reader is left to feel like some sort of vulture for reading about this sort of story in the first place.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Little Girl Blue

  1. It’s one of the great “what-ifs’ of 80’s popular culture. What if Karen recovered? Where would her career along with He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named (aka, Richard) gone if she had beaten Anorexia?
    I’ll have to revisit the book on my Kindle; i didn’t feel it being that exploitative the first time i devoured it about five years ago. I’ll share one of my own theories here: I’ve heard the incest rumors multiple times since Feb 83 but what makes much more sense to me was that her sexuality was closeted . . . I am kinda surprised she hasn’t been adopted as an icon of the gay community. The idea that Karen was a closeted lesbian makes much more sense to me than the idea that K & R took place in extra-curricular activity away from the stage and studio.

    • I don’t think that K & R were together either, but I do believe that there were some secrets and that Richard somewhat resented his sister for a variety of reasons, even if the two of them did make some great music together. It is truly a great what-if question as to what would have happened if Karen had been able to recover.

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