Becoming Beauvoir: A Life follows this template but does not fall into the trap of becoming a dry expose of the famous philosopher, novelist, feminist, and activist. The author, Kate Kirkpatrick, takes the reader into very personal, intimate areas of Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) life. Simone de Beauvoir became a force de jour in French existentialist philosophy, and has inherited an (in)famous reputation, depending on who you speak with. As the longtime friend and lover of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), she made many waves in the culture and attracted the ire of those who would rather ignore the treatment of women in society.
In this ambitious biography, Kirkpatrick shows how Beauvoir came to form and write her major philosophical and literary works, including the short but dense staple of existentialism The Ethics of Ambiguity, her most famous novel The Mandarins, and her tome of historical analysis and collected anecdotes about the roles women play in society, The Second Sex. Kirkpatrick successfully puts Beauvoir’s personality and thought on display, defending her originality and philosophy from the contemporary critics who accused her of owing everything to Jean-Paul Sartre.
Beauvoir did not solely write fiction. In fact, her education was in philosophy. She scored 2nd in the nation in her philosophy exams (second only to Sartre) and she taught philosophy for many years. Beauvoir, not Sartre, is the one who developed an ethics using the underlying tenets of existentialism in The Ethics of Ambiguity. She also wrote many articles and works in philosophy throughout her years, though they were not applauded or shared as widely as Sartre’s.
In the political realm, she worked tirelessly in socialist circles and spent many of her years advocating for women’s rights and successfully campaigning for legislation that would allow women access to birth control, to open their own bank accounts, and get safe and legal abortions. In the later part of her life, Beauvoir’s activism would continue long after she published her last book, up until the week she died. Her book, The Second Sex, would easily become the most political and the most contentious of her works. Although it was not given much credit outside of France, it become a cornerstone of second-wave feminism. Only in 2010 did it finally get an unabridged version translated into English.
Outside of her philosophical contributions, Beauvoir’s love life has been a subject of long-term interest, as well as great misunderstanding. Most famously, her and Jean-Paul Sartre created a pact in their 20s that they would be each other’s “essential loves” They would hold that the life of the other in this pact would always hold a central part in their life. Conventional monogamy was not wanted by either party in this pact, and they agreed to have “contingent loves.” These loves would be third parties who would variably become romantic partners, roommates, and dependents throughout the duo’s life. During Beauvoir’s lifetime, this pact was viewed by the public as a way for Sartre to philander in permissive affairs, while Beauvoir was relegated to the role of jealous mistress. After Beauvoir’s death, letters detailed the lovers throughout Beauvoir’s life became public, and it was clear that Beauvoir was not a spurned love, but an equal participant in this pact. In fact, she had relationships with both male and female lovers throughout the years. However, as a similar pact would likely do even today, it hurt many of the third parties involved in the Beauvoir and Sartre affair, not least of which came from Sartre's inclination to lie and mislead his lovers. In letters to Sartre, Beauvoir would disclose her hesitations and concerns about the others who became involved in their relationship.
The detail with which Beauvoir’s life is colored within this biography, whether it is in the realm of the personal, the philosophical, or the political, is an achievement by Kirkpatrick. An honest yet favorable work of Beauvoir, Kirkpatrick uses all of the information we now have that was not publicly available even 10 years ago to craft the complexity of the conflicts between Simone de Beauvoir the public figure and Beauvoir the living person. Whether you are a lay person interested in the lives of existentialists, or an academic philosopher looking for critical research, Becoming Beauvoir will undoubtedly become the gold standard by which all other biographies of Beauvoir will be measured.