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02 August 2009 @ 07:39 pm
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

At first I found this book engaging - especially as I'd been fearfully anticipating the prosy lovechild of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Plath's initial style actually reminded me more of Margaret Atwood, which can never be a bad thing. Sadly, somewhere around the middle it just got ... stoopid.

The first few pages did put me in sympathy with the protagonist, Ethel. She's too tall for most men and she hasn't yet found an alcoholic drink that tastes 'wonderful' - both things we have in common. However, as I read on, it became clear that this had to be a poorly disguised autobiography about Sylvia's own life. Between the winning of multiple literary accolades and the suicidal depression, there were too many parallels for it to be anything else. And there's a fucking reason I don't read autobiographies. Very, very rarely do people lead lives that are as interesting as they think they are (Y HELLO THAR, MILEY CYRUS). Biographies are slightly better, as an outsider has the chance to add in historical significance and analyse the forces that shaped the subject’s life. However, an autobiography pretending to be fiction is the worst kind of travesty. Instead of telling a story with intent and plot and meaning, it's just a writer sponging off their own life. That's not how it works.

That was where I saw my first finger bowl. The water had a few cherry blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done.

This was where I thought of the Margaret Atwood comparison. In Atwood's hands this could show an insight into a character's personality and do it well. All Sylvia ends up achieving is a disconnected and slightly silly anecdotal reference.

who all wrote columns, even if some of them were only about health and beauty

The 'only' there bugged the ever-living hell out of me. ONLY health? ONLY beauty? As in, ONLY two things that are probably top of everyone's Important Life Aspects list? (After Money, that is.) Sylvia prattles on about wanting freedom from marriage and children and suburban hell for Ethel, but she's trapping herself when she says things like this.

The cadavers [...] had stiff, leathery, purple-black skin and they smelt like old pickle jars.

LOL has either never seen a cadaver, or they preserved them differently in the sixties. The cadavers I blithely sawed and hacked at were yellow. The smell wasn't so much pickles as ... formaldehyde. Formaldehyde really only smells like one thing, and that's formaldehyde.

I saw the world divided into people who had slept with somebody and people who hadn't, and this seemed the only really significant difference between one person and another.

WORD. Sigh.

The end of the book was so abrupt. I kept thinking Ethel would see some kind of resolution, whether it was a cure or getting her life back on track or marriage or a completed suicide. Instead, there's ... nothing.

It all makes me very grateful for the invention of SSRIs, though. Even Wurtzel's experience of fluoxetine wasn't great, but nowadays depression is a far more accessible disease, treatment-wise. THANKFULLY. Additionally, the actual 'bell jar' metaphor is a pretty damn accurate one - so I give Plath kudos for that. But I'm not going to read any more autos by depressives if I can help it. They're just too damn depressing.

Previously, on Book Glomp 2009:
He Knew He Was Right, Anthony Trollope |The Bostonians, Henry James | For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway | For Esme - with Love and Squalor, JD Salinger | The Outsider, Albert Camus | The Princess Diaries: Ten out of Ten, Meg Cabot | The Vicar of Bullhampton, Anthony Trollope | Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans | Villette, Charlotte Bronte | The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James | The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler | Cecilia, Fanny Burney | The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger | The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark | Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut | Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann | Siddhartha, Herman Hesse | The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga | The Duke and I, Julia Quinn | Brave New World, Aldous Huxley | North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell | Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee | Catch-22, Joseph Heller | Bright Shiny Morning, James Frey | Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck | The Demon's Lexicon, Sarah Rees Brennan | The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton | jPod, Douglas Coupland | 'Are these my basoomas I see before me?', Louise Rennison | Faro's Daughter, Georgette Heyer | Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman | The Accidental Sorcerer, K.E. Mills | Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold | V., Thomas Pynchon | The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway | The Dragon Keeper, Robin Hobb | Orlando, Virginia Woolf
(Deleted comment)
every Starbucks should have a polar bear: collapsingnight: pier jumpingscoradh on August 3rd, 2009 09:48 am (UTC)
Was Prozac Nation a direct descendant of The Bell Jar? I only compared them because they were both written by depressed girls. I did try and tell myself that when Plath wrote her book no one had probably ever tackled the subject before. It didn't make it all that easier to read. In future I vow to stay away from pseudo-autobiographies, no matter who staked the flag first!