Now it’s Sylvia’s turn

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Bell jarYesterday I reviewed a new YA novel by Meg Wolitzer called Belzhar (here), in which a depressed young woman was helped back to good health by a special English class that studied Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and then kept rather special personal journals. Reading this book made me pull my copy of The Bell Jar off the shelf and to finally read it straight after.

The Bell Jar has one of the most memorable novel openings ever:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sicl, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

* * *The discussion below contains plot spoilers – you have been warned* * *

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a young woman, an honours student in English who gets a summer internship at a glossy magazine in New York where she ‘was supposed to being having the time of my life.’ She begins to find the expectations of the kinds of life on offer to her at home or in the city as being underwhelming, constricting and stifling and she turns in on her self in her bell jar. We get flashbacks to her schooldays and her near engagement to Buddy Willard, we hear her mother’s hopes that she’ll learn shorthand so she has a fallback position as a secretary. Esther gets worse and badly treated by one doctor, attempts suicide, but was found in time and thanks to a benefactor given help in a good private psychiatric hospital. The book ends with her just about to re-enter life and return to college.

I knew the novel was very autobiographical, closely paralleling Plath’s own life – I didn’t know that she had used a psuedonym – Victoria Lucas. It wasn’t published under her own name until 1967, several years later and not in the USA until 1971.

Of course, I was aware of Plath’s suicide, but didn’t realise this happened just one month after the novel was published in 1963. Knowing this makes reading the novel with its hopeful ending even more sad. The same happened when I read the late Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story back in January of this year – it too has an upbeat finish showing that the black dog of depression can be beaten. It’s just so sad that these two authors, Plath just 30 and Vizzini 32, had so much life still to come. This book has left me wanting to read more about Plath and I will start with Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson (which Shiny co-ed Victoria reviewed here).

I do hope that Plath envisaged that Esther Greenwood would be able to re-engage with life and live it to the full – there is a hint in the novel, which I was grateful for, and I’m glad to have finally read this book. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963. Faber & Faber paperback, 240 pages.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson.




Annabel elsewhere – Jill Dawson & Val McDermid

Today I’m going to share links to two more of my reviews over at Shiny New Books. We’re still sending out the first newsletter to new subscribers, so click on the logo to your right and it’ll take you there. We also have a giveaway and an ‘Ideal Library’ competition running – details in the newsletter and on the SNBks front page.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback coverThe first book I’d like to highlight is Jill Dawson’s wonderful new novel The Tell-Tale Heart – My Shiny New Books review.  Dawson is an author whose novels I always enjoy, (my blog review of her previous novel Lucky Bunny is here).

The Tell-Tale Heart is the story of a university professor and professional reprobate that needs a heart transplant, and his teenaged donor. This book is by an author writing at the height of her powers.  Full of hearty references, humour and sadness, and I loved it.

You can also read the SNBks interview with Jill Dawson here.

northangerThen we have something completely different…

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is the second novel in a series of modern retellings of the works of Austen – My Shiny New Books review.

You never have paired Austen and McDermid together, but she has done it proud, producing a frothy teenage novel for the Twilight generation that keeps all the essential plot elements in, but works perfectly in the world of dating and texting, txtg.

Please feel free to comment on either of these novels here or on Shiny New Books.

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Source: Publishers – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Tell-tale Heart by Jill Dawson, pub Feb 2014 by Sceptre, Hardback 256pages.
Northanger Abbey (Austen Project 2) by Val McDermid, pub Mar 2014 by The Borough Press, Hardback 352 pages.

Who is Silvia?

Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French

silviaShakespeare’s question from The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an apposite one to ask of Dawn French’s new novel, for the title character never says a word, being in a coma after a fall from a third floor balcony.

Instead, Silvia’s story is told from many different points of view including her mad hippy sister Jo, her ex husband Ed and best friend Cat amongst others, who all come to visit her. Between visitors, Silvia is looked after by her kind and caring West Indian nurse, Winnie.

With the voices changing each chapter, it does take time to start to build up a picture of Silvia, and it is deliberately confusing at first. As you get to know all the characters a little, certain aspects of Silvia’s life start to become clearer. The clever thing that French does though, as she introduces new information, is to constantly change and update what we think about Silvia; she goes from saint to sinner several times over, and that gives a definite element of drama with a shocking conclusion.

Silvia’s visitors may all be a little stereotypical, particularly Jo, but I’d defy anyone not to like Winnie the nurse who has her own troubles, but puts them aside to provide professional and empathetic care to her patients. We all hear terrible stories about patients, especially elderly ones, being poorly looked after in hospital, and Winnie’s genuine and caring attitude is almost unexpected. I remember one nurse at the Royal Marsden who looked after my late Mum, who took the time to chat, applied hand-cream for her, and generally looked after her wonderfully during her last days – proof that they do exist.

Don’t mistake this for a comedy novel, it is most definitely a drama. Naturally, there are some amusing moments to lighten the tension that develops, but if you were expecting something light from French, you won’t get it here, as Silvia’s untold story is quite dark.

Certain characters worked better than others.  Jo was rather irritating (think Auntie Angela from TV’s Outnumbered), and I wasn’t sure about Ed.  Silvia’s estranged daughter Cassie was interesting, and Tia the cleaner provided most of the light relief.  Winnie was the real star – and if you read her words aloud in your head, you’ll get the West Indian accent portrayed on the page perfectly.

Of course French has always written, not being one of those comedians who don’t write their own material, so it’s not unexpected that she has taken to longer forms so well.  I haven’t read French’s first novel, A tiny bit marvellous, but I really enjoyed this one, liking the original structure in particular, and I look forward to whatever comes next. (8/10)

See also Dovegreyreader’s review.

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I received an ARC to review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French, pub Michael Joseph in Oct 2012, Hardback 352 pages.