Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
by Elizabeth Winder
Harper - Nonfiction/Biography
Source: ARC for review from HarperCollins
What's it about?
Pain, Parties, Work is about Sylvia Plath's month in New York, working as a "junior editor" at Mademoiselle magazine. The author's objective is to attempt to "undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist".
What I liked about Pain, Parties, Work:
I haven't read anything at all by Sylvia Plath and I was curious about her, what she was like during her younger years, before she became depressed enough to take her own life. In Pain, Parties, Work, I thought author Elizabeth Winder did an excellent job of describing the Sylvia that people who lived and worked with her knew during one stifling month living at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City (a place for women only, with tiny rooms and curfews) -- the clothes she wore, her daily activities, the men she dated, the authors she admired, her writing, her brief but memorable friendships. The author talks about Sylvia's love for the beach and tanning . . . her happy place, I guess you'd say . . . and how missing out on her usual summer beach time may have impacted her emotions.
I think the author did an excellent job of describing Sylvia as a charming, brilliant, fashion-crazy artist and a flirtatious, happy young woman. The book contains plenty of recollections from people who were there during her month at Mademoiselle, the occasional quote from Sylvia's journals and a nice variety of photographs. I found Pain, Parties, Work fascinating and very difficult to put down.
What I disliked:
I have mixed feelings about whether the author succeeded at unraveling the tortured artist cliché, simply because the end result was a breakdown that led to the horrors of electrical shock and insulin shock treatment, as well as Sylvia's first suicide attempt. In the end, the book reveals that in spite of being a captivating and stunningly sharp individual, some very serious issues were brewing beneath young Sylvia's dazzling, visible personality. From the cover blurb on the ARC of Pain, Parties, Work:
Winder traces the arc of Plath's month at Mademoiselle, showing how Manhattan's alien atmosphere unleashed an anxiety that would stay with her for the rest of her life.
There were broad hints, as that quote indicates, that Sylvia was already unbalanced. I found it of particular concern that she was physically attacked more than once (not successfully -- she fought off predators well), yet she went out a second time with one of her attackers.
Recommended particularly to readers who are curious about Sylvia Plath or enjoy biographies. A surprisingly entertaining account that I found difficult to put down, Pain, Parties, Work has piqued my interest in Plath's writing and I hope to read some of her poetry and The Bell Jar, soon. Yes, it does end on a sad note and I'm not entirely certain the author's goal was met. But, Elizabeth Winder did an excellent job of gathering information, including personal accounts and photos, that formed a vivid image of Sylvia Plath as a sparkling young woman with a promising future. Pain, Parties, Work is yet another reminder of how poorly mental illness was treated, not so long ago, as Zelda Fitzgerald's story was in Z.
Since I skipped Fiona Friday, last week, a gratuitous cat photo:
That's all for now! Happy Wednesday!
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