Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Path in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder

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Moments define us.

Synopsis of Pain, Parties Work: sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder: On May 31, 1953, twenty-year-old Sylvia Plath arrived in New York City for a one-month stint at "the intellectual fashion magazine" Mademoiselle to be a guest editor for its prestigious annual college issue. Over the next twenty-six days, the bright, blond New England collegian lived at the Barbizon Hotel, attended Balanchine ballets, watched a game at Yankee Stadium, and danced at the West Side Tennis Club. She typed rejection letters to writers from The New Yorker and ate an entire bowl of caviar at an advertising luncheon. She stalked Dylan Thomas and fought off an aggressive diamond-wielding delegate from the United Nations. She took hot baths, had her hair done, and discovered her signature drink (vodka, no ice).

Young, beautiful, and on the cusp of an advantageous career, she was supposed to be having the time of her life. Drawing on in-depth interviews with fellow guest editors whose memories infuse these pages, Elizabeth Winder reveals how these twenty-six days indelibly altered how Plath saw herself, her mother, her friendships, and her romantic relationships, and how this period shaped her emerging identity as a woman and as a writer. Pain, Parties, Work—the three words Plath used to describe that time—shows how Manhattan's alien atmosphere unleashed an anxiety that would stay with her for the rest of her all-too-short life.

My two cents

Having this biography in my TBR has literally pushed me to read The Bell Jar. (Check out my review here.)

Before reading The Bell Jar, my extent of Plath knowledge: brilliant poet, committed suicide. I was on the verge of buying a secondhand copy of The Bell Jar and someone saw me and said: that's depressing reading. It seemed that entering into the world that is Plath was one of angst and of darkness.


This book is supposedly a pre-suicidal look at Plath. The book focuses on that pivotal summer of 1953 when Sylvia, 21-years-old, served as one of the guest editors of Mademoiselle described by Plath as "the intellectual fashion magazine." We follow Sylvia on a whirlwind 26 day-journey, from the initial euphoria to eventual disillusionment, from eager and keen to jaded and unhappy. This biography suggests that this short period was a defining moment for Sylvia, foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.

I read this biography right after having read The Bell Jar. Since The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, I am led to believe that Plath was a young woman of the 1950s, with hopes, dreams and ambition but who succumbed to a depression and became mired in it. It was interesting to get a more detailed account, the so-called inside scoop. The similarities between fiction and reality as so startingly obvious that it's impossible to miss them. This really raised my appreciation of The Bell Jar immensely, contextualizing it and making the story, its characters, its milieu, so much more real and believable. But it also made The Bell Jar all the more tragic.

***

The obvious fascination that Winder has with Sylvia Plath has led her to do some rather inspired research, resulting in this richly detailed picture of the young woman Plath was. I loved the level of detail that may seem trivial to some, because in many lives it is the mundane that makes each of us unique. 

This book immerses you in Sylvia's world. I confess that I loved the details of Sylvia's life as a young woman of the 1950s, the literary and fashion fronts that she moved in, the fascinating people that she worked with and encountered, and of the buzz of living in New York. The fashions, the standards of beauty, the cosmetics, and all trappings of being a woman are also in full display here (the variants of the red lipstick, gloves and hat, no white shoes, conical bras) -- I felt a little indulgent, and very girly, and it gave me a very clear idea of the expectations and of proper decorum for women of the time. 

Some examples of these details: 
She simply loved the food the way she loved the material world: cashmere, caviar, beer, all of it. She loved the colors, wrote in her diary of yellow corn chowder, tuna salad laden with mayonnaise, the dazzling yellow of an egg yolk, the glint of peacock blue inside a raw oyster. 
[..] Sylvia's pen-and-ink drawings of fruit, shoes, and animals are deft and adorable and very much of the tangible world. [..] A cartoonish "Curious French Cat" -- a black cat peering from behind a door. And a pair of kitten heels pointed coyly inward with the words "The Bell Jar" pencilled lightly in the top right corner. - p. 107, ARC, page may change
This illustration accompanies a box describing "Sylvia's Art"
Via
 ***

The format of the book really enhanced the narrative: peppered with interviews and anecdotes, photos of Sylvia, some of her drawings and snippets from her diary, and more random yet intriguing Sylvia trivia (list of her boyfriends, lipstick color, favourite things, etc.).

Beyond that gorgeous cover, it feels and reads more like a mini-magazine, and as a result it is never, never boring.

***
While this book intended to debunk"the cliche of Plath as the demon-plagued artist," I doubt any one book can do that. This isn't a typical academic biography (thank goodness for that!) but it does provide us a glimpse of a period in a life that has become the stuff of legends.

And the interviews and insider stories -- what a mixed bag! They range from recognizing Plath's brilliance, to empathetic (like Nedra who felt "exactly how Sylvia did: raped by the experience"), to anger at Sylvia for having drawn heavily on reality for The Bell Jar (people actually recognized themselves in the book!). I was equally engrossed in the other guest editors and what they had to say -- quite a motley crew of young women coming in from all over the country and bringing in their own worldviews and quirks. These interviews gave a more realistic picture of Sylvia and of this generation of women who were shaped by their shared experience of working in Mademoiselle and of the milieu of 1950s America.

***

Verdict: A peek into the legendary Sylvia Plath as a young woman of 1950s America. If you are fascinated with Plath or are merely curious, this biography is an engaging read. 

Read this if:
  • You are curious about Sylvia Plath
  • If you love Sylvia Plath trivia
  • Love details about being female in the 1950s

About Elizabeth Winder 
Elizabeth Winder is also the author of a poetry collection. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Review, the Antioch Review, American Letters, and other publications. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and earned an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University.


TLC book tours
Check out the rest of the tour here.

I received an uncorrected proof of this book from TLC Book Tours in order to participate in this tour.



Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
by Elizabeth Winder
Amazon.com: Hardcover | Kindle Edition 

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5 comments :

  1. I'm fascinated by her and think I'd enjoy that autobiography.
    Fantastic review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you will Freda! It's a fun read!

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  2. I have to read this! I'm too curious not to :-D

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  3. "But it also made The Bell Jar all the more tragic." I couldn't agree more. What a tragedy!

    Thank so much for being a part of the tour.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "I loved the level of detail that may seem trivial to some, because in many lives it is the mundane that makes each of us unique."
    I think it's this kind of detail that makes even long time fans of Sylvia Plath find something interesting in this book...a look at Plath as the woman she was before all the legend began.
    Enjoyed your review!

    ReplyDelete

 
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