PAIN, PARTIES, WORK: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder was a suggestion from my friend Amy at New Century Reading because we were reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for one of our book groups.

It was a fast, interesting companion to The Bell Jar, the fictionalized account of Plath’s summer of ‘53, in which she interned at Mademoiselle during June, followed by a suicide attempt and hospitalization.

Winder contacted the other women who interned and worked with Plath that summer, interviewing them about their experience. She also gives background on the time.

Part of her intent was to show that Plath was not just a dour depressive, but also a young woman who enjoyed dating, makeup, fashion. Beyond this, though, what I appreciated was that the other women expressed the same insecurities and feelings of having to put up a front that Plath related in her novel, and hearing from the people who inspired the characters in the novel.

That none discussed their doubts, that they assumed everyone else was just having a grand time of it and felt at ease and enjoying the ride, was perhaps the most toxic element to this particular kind of noisy loneliness.

What didn’t work for me was the format of the book. It seems to ping pong between being a biography of Plath, but sometimes written in a breezy style of a women’s magazine with highlighted text boxes and lists. Also, she uses quotes from Plath’s journals to head chapters, and the quotes are out of time with the period she discusses, and her book jumps ahead and back in time.

The parts of the book, such as the interviews with the other guest editors, were detailed and helpful. The other parts, where Winder goes out on a limb with statements like that Plath would have made a great fashion editor, or the chapter with a “dictionary” of some of Plath’s favorite things, were less successful.

I would not take this as the only biography of Plath, but as a companion to the novel, I found it illuminating.

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