Just Kids: A Book Review

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Patti Smith had been on my to-be-read list for ages when, by chance, I found a French exemplary of Just Kids in a bookcase next to my workplace. I picked it up and added it to my forever-growing stack of unread books. I forgot about it for a few months, only looking at it enviously from time to time without ever thinking seriously about reading it. I almost took it with me when I selected the books I wanted to take on my summer holiday, but it didn’t make the final cut. For an unknown reason, I ended up taking it with me on my way home to Brussels because I wanted an easy read and the fact that it was in French helped with that.

Just Kids is a memoir written by Patti Smith focusing mostly on her childhood and early adulthood. She spent most of her childhood in New Jersey and always knew she wanted to be an artist of some kind but wasn’t sure she had enough talent. At 20, she moved to New-York with no money and barely any acquaintances. She then met Robert Mapplethorpe who would be her lover for a time and then become a life-long friend. It is to him that she dedicated her memoir. The two of them lived at the Chelsea Hotel, where many legends of the time resided, and Smith takes us with them as they meet celebrities such as Janis Joplin. She opens up about their struggles to both get their art recognised and find themselves. Mapplethorpe will become a well-known photographer and Patti Smith will be considered the mother of punk, but before all this, they were just kids and the only thing they knew for sure was that they had each other and wanted to become artists. This is illustrated in the following passage, which is one of my favourites:

“We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand, “oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”

“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.” (Patti Smith, Just Kids)

One thing to know about myself is that I love learning about people’s lives. Every time I hear about someone new, I check their Wikipedia page to know what their life was like. I’ve always wanted to read the diaries of some writers, but it makes me too uncomfortable because I know I would hate for anyone to read my diaries, let alone thousands of strangers. The fact that this is a memoir satisfies my curiosity without making me feel guilty about it. I read Joan Baez’s memoire this summer and really enjoyed it. She also had quite a fascinating life and it was very interesting to read about it. She is a songwriter as well so her writing was enjoyable as well. It definitely sparked my curiosity and made me want to read more memoirs. It therefore made sense for Just Kids to follow.

I loved the book as soon as I started reading it, which is quite unusual for me. I usually hate every book for the first 50 pages and I can’t recall the amount of times I almost gave up on a book I ended up loving.However, this was not an issue with Just Kids,  because I got hooked from the first page. The first thing that struck me was how easy it was to read. Not because it is too simple, but because her writing is very flowy and poetic. Though I liked Joan Baez’s memoire a lot, some parts were definitely a bit flat and boring because they felt very factual. On the other hand, Just Kids feels like a novel and I think that’s what makes it so good.

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What touched me the most in Just Kids is the tenderness that just seems to be overflowing from every page. There’s a lot of tenderness in the way she describes all the people she met and loved, but also for her younger self. It was also enjoyable, since I could oddly relate to what she talked about. I haven’t spent time in New York and was obviously not around in the 70s but all the literary and musical references that are scattered throughout the book made it feel closer to home. I think it’s fascinating how you can have a few common things with someone you don’t know at all and realise that you have the same favourite book or that you visited the same place. Multiple times while reading I would think “Oh wait I know about that one”. As a Belgian, there are barely any books taking place in my country, especially in English, so it is funny when a book discusses something that is in a way or another close to me. I remember gasping when Sally Rooney wrote about the football match between Costa Rica and The Netherlands during the 2015 world cup. I watched it with Costa Rican friends in Normandy and that made it such a special and unique memory that I was surprised to remember it existed for other people too.

What I think is also very impressive about Just Kids is that it doesn’t feel like it is written decades after the events it describes. Every description is so vivid and so full of details, which probably influences the fact that it reads like a novel and not like a “retelling”. This is probably because she kept a journal all her life and referred to it while writing. I have to admit that I never really listened to Patti Smith (though her song “Dancing Barefoot” was in my playlist a while ago) but towards the end of the book I read some of the passages while listening to some of the songs she was talking about, and it was such a nice experience. It really makes up for a sort of immersive experience to both listen to an artist’s story while consuming their art at the same time and I regret not reading the whole book while listening to her music. 

To conclude, Just Kids really motivated to both read other memoirs and other books by Patti Smith. I would definitely recommend it and can’t wait to start Mr. Train (her second memoir), to read about the rest of her life.

Written by Léa Vandervorst

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