Author: Elizabeth Winder
Genre: Non-Fiction (Biography / Poetry / 1950s / New York City / Sylvia Plath / Mademoiselle Magazine / Depression / Pop Culture / Sociology)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper (4/16/2013)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A poetic look at a month in Sylvia Plath's life, punctuated with trivia about 1953, American culture, women's lives, and New York City.
Reading Challenges: What's In a Name
Do I like the cover?: I love the cover very much -- adore those retro pics -- but my galley has no info about the image. I don't think it's Sylvia Plath on the cover, which is really too bad, as there are some wonderful pictures from this time that I would have preferred to see featured.
I'm reminded of...: Nancy Milford
First line: Sylvia Plath committed suicide with cooking gas.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you like unique biographies or are a Plath fan.
Why did I get this book?: I'm fascinated by Plath.
Review: The experience of a book is shaped by the reader: what she feels, thinks, values, believes, has experienced, wants to experience. Some books come with more baggage than others.
Sylvia Plath is a figure for whom I have intense, tangled feelings; any book I read by her or of her is seen through the many layers of experience and emotion I've tied to Plath. More than ten years ago, I wrote a sort of reflection piece on a non-book blog about The Bell Jar, trying post-college to untangle my feelings about Plath and her tragic hagiography. In college, as a young depressed teenager, the pathos of Plath's life as I understood it seemed immensely appealing -- crucial, even -- to my developing identity as an adult (and at the time, a writer) but now that I'm older, now that I'm dealing with my depression, I want to get past the flat caricature and see the complete woman.
This book is hardly a complete presentation, but the focused sliver is fascinating. In this 288-page volume, poet Elizabeth Winder narrows her sights on Plath's one month internship at Mademoiselle magazine in 1953 and the impact it had on her. (These four weeks later inspired The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a brilliant, passionate, self-possessed young woman chafing life in the 1950s.)
Winder's Plath is a sensualist, a fashionista, a gourmand, a sociologist. She's unlikable, predatory, sharp, cruel, insecure, competitive, playful, curious. Using Plath's diary and new interviews with the other 'guest editors' who spent that June with Plath, Winder shapes a Sylvia who is less alien and more familiar than I anticipated. (And far less melancholy!)
The rigors of working for Mademoiselle, the pressure of being a young woman from an Ivy League college in 1953, the transition from small town life to New York City all weighed on the women who made up the guest editors, Plath included. Each one, they shared in their interviews with Winder, thought they alone were unhappy, stressed, or feeling isolated. Oblivious, they rocketed from one event to another, cramming copy in between fashion shows and cocktail parties, Yankee baseball games and movies. In their opening editorial, they declared they wanted careers and marriage (and three children each); Plath, however, fought against that inevitability bitterly. She paid for her resistance, as well as her passion, with her first suicide attempt and subsequent electroconvulsive therapy treatments.
The book's unusual style reminded me of a magazine, with the sidebars, call outs, blocks of trivia, interviews mixed in with narrative. I didn't find it gimmicky; it read breezy and fast, layered, allowing Winder to tell her story without having to spell it all out. I raced through this one, even when the last 100 pages grew weighty with the foreshadowing of Plath's coming suicide attempt.
My only real critique is that there were some glaring inconsistencies that might just be a result of my reading a galley (rather than a finished copy). Info offered on one page is contradicted on another ('she wrote in blue cursive' (p61), 'She never wrote in cursive.' (p62)); or repeated verbatim, like the tidbit of a guest editor writing to Mademoiselle in the 1970s, condemning them for ignoring Plath's vulnerabilities (p89 and p181). There was also the occasional mistake (Sylvia gifted someone Alice and Wonderland which I presume was meant to be Alice in Wonderland.)
I can't say I was exactly sad to leave Sylvia -- she's not a woman I think I would have been friends with -- but I do miss Winder's warm portrayal of that heady, busy, sad, stifling summer and the women who worked with her. (And for the most part, based on the quotes Winder shares, seemed to have liked Plath, in a way.) This is a partial, biased biography that unabashedly rings with admiration and affection for Plath, and I appreciated that. For those new to Plath, I think this a good introduction to her; those who are familiar with Plath might find nothing shockingly new other than the tidbits revealed by Winder's interviews. Those who like gossip-y armchair escapes will love this book: New York City and some of her famous residents and notorious visitors appear, pushing for attention as much as Plath was.
*** *** ***
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