Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
by Elizabeth Winder
Copyright 2013
Harper - Nonfiction/Biography
262 pp.

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!

©2013 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery  or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I haven't read anything by Sylvia Plath either, I'm sad to say. I do want to read The Bell Jar at some point though. I'm really curious about her history too--she seems like such an interesting person. I am not a big fan of biographies, but will look into this one.

    Fiona is so cute!

    1. I've got a copy of The Bell Jar, somewhere, but it's probably buried in one of the many boxes we haven't gotten around to unloading since we moved. She was a very interesting person. Sad that she took her own life so young.

      Thanks! Fiona's a sweetheart. When you walk into a room and she's sitting there, she will come running to greet you. She's such a lovable thing!

  2. I enjoy biographies and I'm quite curious about Plath. This sounds like it could be a book I'd like :) Great review, thanks!

    1. I've been curious about Sylvia Plath for a while, too. It's an interesting book. The writing style is a little unusual -- not in a bad way, but just unique -- and I particularly enjoyed the quotes by people who were there, living and working with Sylvia during her summer in New York. It felt a bit more personal than some biographies, thanks to those tidbits.

  3. Yes do read The Bell Jar soon. Very interesting.

    1. I hope to, but I have a copy and a search for it was fruitless; it's apparently still packed away. Hopefully, I'll come across the right box, soon!


Thank you for visiting my blog! I use comment moderation because apparently my blog is a spam magnet. Don't worry. If you're not a robot, your comment will eventually show up and I will respond, with a few exceptions. If a comment smacks of advertising, contains a dubious link or is offensive, it will be deleted. I love to hear from real people! I'm a really chatty gal and I love your comments!