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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette

3.9  ·  Rating Details ·  1,176 Ratings  ·  55 Reviews
A scandalously talented stage performer, a practiced seductress of both men and women, and the flamboyant author of some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, Colette was our first true superstar. Now, in Judith Thurman's Secrets of the Flesh, Colette at last has a biography worthy of her dazzling reputation.

Having spent her childhood in the shadow of an o
Paperback, 660 pages
Published October 31st 2000 by Ballantine Books (first published October 11th 1999)
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The mere possession of an "interesting" personality is no longer the ticket of admission to a terminally sated and bored society which has developed, as Arendt puts it, "a morbid lust for the exotic, abnormal and different, as such."
I am familiar with two of the authors of the blurbs on the back of this book. One of them I view with the sardonic eye of "Oh One much praised by others, I've a feeling I'll much enjoy tearing you apart." The other is a genius in my mind, mayhaps by way of my
May 21, 2015 Janet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-years-ago
I often think of this book--like whenever I'm asked if I could have dinner with three people, living or dead. After reading this book, Colette is my ultimate dinner companion. What a life. She straddled centuries, classes, sexes, mores, and managed to become one of the most acclaimed writers of her time. Judith Thurman is an admirable biographer, bringing you in not just to a life, but to what was a very strange social order, the French demimonde. Riveting and rereadable--don't give your copy aw ...more
This is an excellent, if slightly unusual biography - Colette herself was highly unusual, of course, and this is one of the few biographies I've read where the subject triumphs. I mean, yes, yes, that's partly my own sympathies speaking up, isn't it: when you mostly read biographies of artists (especially writers and movie stars? riiiight) and politicians (especially Alexander Hamilton and T.E. Lawrence? riiiiight), then an overall sense of failure is going to crop up. But Secrets of the Flesh i ...more
Ruby Hollyberry
Jun 26, 2009 Ruby Hollyberry rated it really liked it
I just reread this and greatly enjoy it. It has been done very thoroughly and does not give any impression that anything could have been sloughed over or left out. I am not at all disappointed... and yet I can't give it five stars because the author put far too much of herself into it - a morally opinionated and properly feminist modern woman with little in common with Colette. I think the best biographies give you almost no real sense of who the author is and what their own outlook on life migh ...more
Jun 19, 2017 Phrodrick rated it liked it
Bottom Line First
Secrets of the Flesh; A life of Colette is over long. The scholarship is excellent. Ms Thurman is at her best giving her analysis of Madam Colette's extensive library, but the biographer cannot tell the difference from significant, or illustrative events and tittle-tattle. Overall this is a good book. There is too much book and not enough of it is important.

Early in Secrets of the Flesh Author Judith Thurman tells us that her subject, Colette may have invented the modern teenage
Jun 22, 2010 Asya rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, bio
WHEN WILL THIS BOOK END??? I've yet to master the art of skimming, and this book needs this method, otherwise it's an endless barrage of poorly-connected details with an occasional "daring" interpretation that reads like a copy/paste from Freud or Wittig. Even exhaustive biographies need to tell a story, omitting some details in favor of a whole. That's my opinion at least (I see the other point too - life is full of disconnected minutiae, so is a bio, etc etc). So this baggy monster is informat ...more
May 29, 2013 Bonnie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Belle Epoque fans
Let's just say this up front: I can't possibly give a book about Colette less than three stars unless it's not talking about Colette at all. The story got a little boring in parts, and I don't think it's because of Colette's life; I think it's in the way it was told. Maybe the biographer has been reading too much Colette...because she seemed to be attempting to make the writing a little to florid. And too philosophical, and a little presumptuous. Props to her for doing so much work on piecing to ...more
Oct 01, 2010 Rachel rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I don't normally ready biographies, but this was fascinating, I didn't even mind the extensive detail. Colette lived a wild old life, and is as interesting a character as any in her books. Made me want to reread her novels.
Jul 18, 2009 Grizsdina marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I have given it up for now(page 507)-it is good, but too detailed and long. I feel like I have to read something else now. Maybe I will continue to read it someday.
Barbara Stoner
Oct 13, 2013 Barbara Stoner rated it it was amazing
If most of us in this country knows Colette at all, we know her through Gigi, the 1954 movie starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan, and featuring the now problematic little song, Thank Heaven for Little Girls, performed by the inimitable Maurice Chevalier. I like it anyway. After all, the original Gigi was being groomed to be a courtesan. This was just another day in the life for Colette.

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Judith Thurman, is a stunning biogr
Mar 12, 2017 Melinda rated it really liked it
What a fascinating read. So many insights into this woman's life and writing. The author told this story beautifully...against a backdrop of Paris. World wars and social acceptance. Great stuff.
Clare Snow
one day I'll get back to this
Michael Beblowski
Jan 21, 2017 Michael Beblowski rated it liked it
Judith Thurman accomplished a majestic feat, by thoroughly delving into the correspondence, fiction, non-fiction of the scandalous and sensual fin de siecle authoress Colette. She also balanced her own staggering volume with critiques of other published biographies on the subject. Unfortunately the scope of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette was too overwhelming to be consistently engaging and the style tended to cite works rather randomly, transitioning between Colette's prolific fiction a ...more
Frank McAdam
Dec 02, 2014 Frank McAdam rated it really liked it
This is a well written biography that is also well balanced in its presentation. Though Thurman obviously has great affection for her subject, she does more then present a one-dimensional portrait of a woman who was both a famous author and a feminist pioneer (not that Colette herself would have subscribed to such a description). Instead, Thurman does not hesitate to show the many darker sides of Colette's character in all their pettiness and nastiness, and the book is much richer for it.

The bio
Oct 28, 2009 Suzanne rated it it was amazing
Yes, it has taken me years to finish this book, but I think I actually finished it twice. It has traveled to Paris and back in every season, sat on all of my nightstands and been referenced a hundred times. (The reference sections are a writer's dream come true!) I suppose I didn't want it to end... Like, I didn't want to come to the part when she dies. But having "finished" it, I know it will forever be on my nightstand. I have dog-eared and/or highlighted passages on most of the 500 pages.

I w
Zelmer Wilson
Oct 25, 2015 Zelmer Wilson rated it really liked it
Through my reading of various books and biographies, I have heard of Colette, mostly of her scandalous life, rather than of her writing. I decided that I wanted to know more about her and bought this biography. I wasn't disappointed and was pleased to learn that while she did live a scandal ridden life, she also wrote some of the best French novels of the last century. Having read of her life, I will read some of her novels, starting with what are considered her best, Cheri and The Last of Cheri ...more
Ashley Blake
Aug 25, 2009 Ashley Blake rated it it was amazing
This is a great biography of a truly fascinating person. I've heard other readers complain that Thurman didn't seem to like her subject very much, but I don't think that's true. Thurman presented her subject truthfully and Colette was not always a nice person. She was a hedonist, a conservative with severely liberal life choices, and contradicted her opinions with her life. Regardless, she lived. Really lived and was an amazing writer who took chances to tell the truth in her writing few do even ...more
Oct 03, 2010 D rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: english, biography
A very thorough and well written biography. The first part also provides some, to me, fascinating background and insights into the fin-de-siècle (the 19th that is) decadence in Paris. I was also surprised to learn that she published in extreme right wing and anti semitic journals before and during the war.

Sometimes, knowing the background of a book's creation provides extra enjoyment when reading it. In this case, however, I'm glad I read Colette's books before I learned about the circumstances

Jan 02, 2009 Christopher rated it really liked it
Fiercely independent, wildly creative, and supremely individual, Collette is a wellspring of passion.

All the waves and sour turns in her life have lead me to put this one down a few times but that's just a matter of my feeling invested in Collette and her trials. I'm semi-literate but find Secrets of the Flesh to be well written, often sharing a tone that compliments the flair and wit of the Collette quotes peppering it's pages.

A colorful character path finding while exploring the depths of her
Jan 03, 2014 Amanda rated it it was ok
Poor Colette. Relegated to the junior psychology and Nazi apology of Judith Thurman, this book suffered tremendously to the point where I wished Colette had keeled over in her early 20s. Are you interested in a pathetic attempt to construe an authors life events through their fiction? Terrific! I have just the book for you, and even better it is 500 pages long. Oh the unsupported assertions. Oh the painful recounting of delicate fiction through the rude mechanics of a failed history PhD. In hono ...more
Libbi Richmond keating
Am working through this for my book club ... I'm not sure if its my kindle copy, but the author seems to switch subjects & time references frequently. Its a bit hard to keep track of the characters and places occasionally. Since this isn't a book I would have chosen, I don't wish to be negative about the subject so really can't say much about it except that I find them all rather self-important and self involved. I'm not going to finish it and i'm about a third of the way through the 500 pag ...more
Nov 20, 2008 Denis rated it really liked it
Anyone who loves Colette's books will love this biography. Her life reads like one of her novels, and Thurman turns the art of biography into true literature. She writes wonderfully about the famous French author, and manages to recapture the extravagance of this daring, original woman with wit, intelligence and understanding. Colette's eventful life (not without ambiguities) and great literary accomplishments are well described and explained, and Thurman keeps an objective eye on her complex su ...more
Jan 25, 2014 Terry rated it really liked it
This was fascinating. I majored in French literature and somehow I missed the entire Belle Epoque....I'd heard of Collete and Willy but had no knowledge other than the names. This was rambling at times and a little hard to follow and it took awhile to get going (really, it wasn't until the last 200...of 500...pages that I finally got hooked). I really admire the wealth of primary sources--absolutely fascinating.
May 04, 2014 Val rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Judith Thurman has written another very long, very good biography. Colette was an interesting and talented woman with an unconventional life. I did find my interest waning at times and thought some sections could have been condensed a little, but would generally recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the subject.
Isla McKetta
Feb 15, 2014 Isla McKetta rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When you want to understand something about your time, sometimes it helps to examine similar issues 100 years prior. I knew little of Colette before reading this book except for a couple of novellas. Now I feel I have a much more solid understanding of her time, the lit world, and the experience of being a woman. And Thurman's straightforward and thoughtful prose makes me want also to read her biography of Dinesen.
Can you believe I got this with only 2 euros? Even when translated into Finnish the writing is beautiful for a non-fiction work. It blends in perfectly among those little Colette quotes. Not only Thurman has captured the spirit of Colette she also writes objectively and corrects some of the misconceptions that the reader may have heard about her.
William Granche.
I suddenly thought I should look a little more into my French heritage, so Colette seemed like a natural. NOBODY in Elk Co had any of her fiction so like any grown man, I asked my Mom for help. She sent me the gift I bought her about 8 years ago, so I've started it and I'm enjoying it because I love the freedoms of doing something for the sake of pleasure.
Feb 18, 2010 L'Artiste rated it really liked it
I want to read this again right now! My beautiful friend gave me this book, and I just loved it. It's the bio of the French author, Colette, and though it has too many details about each and every person Colette ever met, it is also just an amazing life story she has!
Apr 18, 2015 Susan rated it it was amazing
This is a beautiful, insightful exploration of Collette's life and writing. Thurman is sensitive to Colette's complex personality, which she portrays against the background of Colette's times. The book is long, but because it is so well-written and thoughtful it seems to move quickly.
Sep 01, 2010 Venessa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very well written and engaging book about a fascinating, if controversial, writer. I will definitely seek out other biographies written by Thurman (if the subject interests me, that is, as Colette does!). Highly recommended.
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Judith Thurman began contributing to The New Yorker in 1987, and became a staff writer in 2000. She writes about fashion, books, and culture. Her subjects have included André Malraux, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Cristóbal Balenciaga.

Thurman is the author of “Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller,” which won the 1983 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, and “Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette,” (
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