Reviewed by Leigh Adamkiewicz
Peeks into the lives of the big, the beautiful, and the dead are always fascinating. And through Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, I got a peek into the life of the legendary poet. The book focuses on Plath’s early years, when she was a junior editor for the magazine Mademoiselle. Pain, Parties, Work humanizes Plath, and in doing so gives new depth to the tragedy of her life.
I honestly didn’t know much about Plath when I started this book. I knew she committed suicide. I knew several of her poems expressed a complex relationship with her dead father. I knew her marriage was brilliantly troubled. I had seen the famous photo of her, the photo that featured Plath looking into the camera with ruthless eyes. I remembered that, especially. I felt like I was looking at the face of a corpse floating at the bottom of a deep well.
What I didn’t know was how glittering her life was before the darkness set in. The few adaptations I had seen started with her brilliance already established. Her past was always quickly developed through references of literary mountains that Plath had climbed before. In the beginning of her hero’s journey Plath was an Athena, leaping out of the head of academia.
But at the time of her junior editorship, Plath was not terribly extraordinary. She was quick, clever, and ambitious to be sure. She loved to write, and she was establishing her style. But she was just a kid. She loved tanning, seafood, and going to the beach. She sported a bouncy bleach blonde pageboy and was unnerved when she couldn’t wear her best clothes. She relished in the feeling of falling in love, even if the object of her affections was undeserving.
Plath got the chance of a lifetime when Mademoiselle chose her as one of their guest editors. It was one of a few places that encouraged fresh female editors and writers to develop their voices. While Plath was initially thrilled at the opportunity, the inconsistency of the high demand position weighed on her. She was seen as talented to the point of being threatening. But she was also viewed as insubstantial because she was likely to marry and forego her career. Plath fought for a chance to be taken seriously at a premiere fashion magazine. But as she began to gain traction she began working with career journalists who pooh-poohed her love of fashion.
Plath managed to take her comforts where she could. She dated a string of men and boys, went to all the best parties, and lived a generally charmed life. But the duality of her very nature kept coming to the forefront. She loved city life, but seriously considered living like a hermit by the seaside. She went to great pains to make sure her hair, nails, clothes, and lips were just so. But the wild, dark depths of nature called to her.
This duality is never more succinctly realized than when the book highlights just how little Plath’s friends and family knew about her. Author Elizabeth Winder dots the narrative with little lists from Sylvia and little interviews from people who knew her best. But each of these can be almost intentionally contradictory. Plath is bold. Plath is just another kid away from home. Plath had an ethereal clear-eyed vision. Plath was an awkward girl. Each person thinks they have a singular view of the famous poet. But each view contradicts the others. It seems that no one truly knew Plath, or the depths she was capable of.
Winder’s storytelling style is perfectly suited to the tale. Nothing about the narrative is completely straight forward. Sylvia’s life is told in tiny little poetic verses. A description of a young man who had taken Sylvia out to dinner, a touch of poetry infused into the description of an everyday scene. Like a good modern poem the narrative evokes memory and suggests things that can only be revealed in a second read.
And as the book progresses, Plath’s lost innocence seems natural. The chances she takes get bigger, and you can clearly see her thought process. She loves the written word. But there has to be a better way to live through her writing than working for a polished little fashion magazine.
Plath’s life was one of the big, beautiful ones. And it was a treat to see her life before the legendary parts began. Like Plath’s summer in New York, Pain, Parties, Work‘s greatest beauty in its transitory nature. The legendary figure is cooling her heels until the train arrives. The future is just on the horizon. This is one last diner sandwich, one last spoonful of caviar, one last wistful midnight dance before the great journey begins.
Leigh is a fearless writer who never met a genre, subject, or format she didn’t like. She has written professionally for the past six years and enjoys biking, exploring odd corners of Northeast Ohio, and discovering those good books she hasn’t read yet.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.