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Book Review: ‘Loving Sylvia Plath’ attends to polarizing writer’s circumstances more than her work

A popular form of writing nowadays is one that involves reexamining the lives of people, often members of marginalized groups, who have otherwise been flattened or short-changed by history.

How has society’s assumptions or prejudices informed how a person is remembered, many authors are asking, and what information is available to us that may tell a more complete story?

These are the questions Emily Van Duyne, an associate professor at Stockton University, asks in “Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation.”

In the wake of Plath’s death by suicide, her husband and fellow writer Ted Hughes constructed a narrative that he was the “stabilizing factor” in his wife’s life but that, in the end, even he couldn’t save her. But Van Duyne rejects any notion that Plath was a bad mother or merely a morbid poet. She maintains Plath ought to be remembered as a complicated woman, a formidable writer — one who outshined Hughes — and almost certainly a victim of domestic abuse.

This book is not, for the most part, a hermeneutic study or close reading of Plath’s writings. Rather, Van Duyne’s source material for this reclaimed portrait of Plath are her circumstances.

Van Duyne seeks to subvert Hughes’ narrative of Plath’s life and what drove her to end it. In the wake of #MeToo and cultural conversations about believing women, Van Duyne argues Plath’s story ought to be given a fresh look.

Those wanting a primer on reading Plath or a comprehensive biography should look elsewhere to the plethora of extant literature on the enigmatic literary giant. But “Loving Sylvia Plath: A Reclamation” should be seen as supplementary material for those seeking to better understand the circumstances surrounding her final years.


AP book reviews:

Associated Press