It has already won the 2010 National Book Award for non-fiction, but I'll add what I can to the heaps of praise for Just Kids by Patti Smith.
The world is overrun with celebrity memoirs. Even those with ghost writers or co-authors are rarely worth reading unless one is already interested in that celebrity. But Patti Smith established herself as a writer of poetry and prose before making her biggest splash as a nonconformist rock star. What makes this book so special is that it is a beautiful, fascinating read even for those who aren't fans of her or Robert Mapplethorpe's work.
The title refers to Smith and Mapplethorpe's early adulthood, when most of the book is set. Smith offers sketches of her childhood, leading to her decision to take off to New York by herself to become an artist. Through a series of coincidences that were stranger than fiction, she repeatedly runs into the young Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two become lovers. Together, they struggle to find their way in the world. Both know that they want to be artists but are working through the process of determining what sort of art to pursue. They also just need to survive on a day-to-day basis, scraping by on meager incomes, trying to fund their art and fill their bellies. As time goes on, together they come to terms with Mapplethorpe's homosexuality and how it affects their relationship.
Smith chronicles not only their own lives but the literary, art and music scene in New York in late 1960s and early 1970s. Famous names pass through their orbits, but Smith is no mere name-dropper and conveys the atmosphere at places like the Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City for all its denizens. She unravels how she found her voice, and eventually an audience, as a poet and musician and how Mapplethorpe did so with his photography. The story trails off when they are no longer "just kids" but wraps up with Mapplethorpe's untimely death from AIDS.
I laughed in recognition when Smith said she made more money selling promo copies of records than she did selling her writing as a rock critic. But I was also amazed by her bravery in setting out into the world to pursue her dreams, with only the safety net of Mapplethorpe. It was a wonderfully complex, supportive relationship. Their life together was quite an adventure, exquisitely rendered by Smith.