Bill Richards

Celebrity memoirs can be of dubious merit.

These days, nonfiction authors are known for blurring the line a bit between reality and what makes for good copy, relying less on style and more on salacious content to sell books. With a name such as Coppola attached to a project, that urge to sensationalize can reach a fever pitch.

Yet in “Notes on a Life,” Eleanor Coppola’s second work of nonfiction, the wife of the inimitable Francis Ford Coppola resists the urge to overdramatize, producing a work of gentle beauty and dignity. In both books (the first was the similarly titled “Notes on the Making of ‘Apocalypse Now’”) she asserts, “Hey, I was there too.” But “Life” is even more personal; it’s Coppola’s subtle way of proclaiming her own interests and observations as a wife, mother and artist.

The book is written in a series of nonlinear, diary-like entries that are exceedingly revelatory. Passages date from the late 1970s to recent years, wherein readers are allowed small intimacies such as her nickname (Ellie) or even more substantial confessions (she and Francis became pregnant out of wedlock). The words are, at times, self-conscious, as Coppola recalls being misidentified in photos alongside her husband, or arriving underdressed at an industry event.

In the braver passages, she reflects on unhappiness and despair. A difficult marriage and the death of a child contribute to Coppola’s own struggle to come to terms with her identity.

Just what that identity is reveals itself in a slow, purposeful way that suggests a lifetime of cultivation. Coppola is conscious of her perceived roles: wife of a high-profile Hollywood director, mother to a brood of successful and creative children, and wealthy beneficiary to a handful of successful ventures. In deeply personal passages, Coppola conveys how inhabiting those roles curbed her own artistic ambitions.

In the forefront of these thoughts remains her family. Toward them, she is always respectful, if narratively distant. Francis largely remains a brooding, brilliant patriarch, and to her children Eleanor is nothing but proud. Instead of making them principal characters in her story, she creates herself as a heroine in their lives, and one who provides stability and unconditional love despite their bold ambitions, impossible schedules and sometimes inflated egos. For readers, it’s a relatable tactic.

Stylistically, the writing that spans decades in “Life” is too unchanging to be taken for an actual diary. This sameness suggests heavy editing of whichever form Coppola’s memories previously took. If readers can overlook this slight deception, they will see that they are, indeed, reading notes on a decidedly epic life

Notes on a Life

Doubleday; 290 pages; $25.00

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Eleanor Coppola
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