Monday, July 7, 2014

Shirley a Novel - Review

Shirley: a Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

GENRE – Literary Fiction, Fictionalized Biography

It is 1964 in Vermont. A (fictional) young couple moves into the spooky country house with real life literary giants Stanley Edgar Hyman and Shirley Jackson. For one year, the youngsters stay as house guests with young Rose acting as sort of a servant and lady’s companion to Jackson, and Fred functioning as a protégé to Hyman. First-person narrator Rose is a sensitive 19 year-old from poor beginnings whose hard-scrabble parents were criminals. Somehow she lucked into marriage with Fred, a sweet graduate student in literary criticism. Now Rose is pregnant for the first time. Her innately imaginative personality is heightened by hormones, and she becomes increasingly obsessed with making the volatile and witchy Jackson her mentor and mother-figure. In addition, Rose can’t stop thinking of a Bennington co-ed that went missing in the 1940s who has surfaced in various guises in Jackson’s fiction as a character. Could Jackson or Hyman have had something to do with the girl’s disappearance, perhaps due to an adulterous affair with Hyman?

Meanwhile, family tensions increase as Rose jealously attempts to freeze out the four Hyman kids (who are about her age) so she can have Jackson to herself. Though Jackson and Hyman (both in their mid-forties) are overweight, in poor health, and unattractive, they have an open marriage and a liberal attitude toward popping pills and drinking to excess. But Jackson, who writes feverishly to stave off financial ruin, understandably resents Hyman’s nonstop womanizing with his adoring students. All this creates a malign influence that starts to affect Rose and Fred’s marriage.

I’ve read most of Shirley Jackson’s fiction plus her biography (by Oppenheimer), and this novel accurately reflects Jackson’s writing style, themes, and personality. It’s moody, atmospheric, intense, and compulsively readable. However, I’m not comfortable with the author’s decision to make the three younger Hyman kids characters in her novel, complete with imagined behavior and dialog. These individuals are real people now in their seventies. Unlike their parents, they are not celebrities nor are they removed by death beyond the creepiness of having their privacy invaded. The story probably should have kept their appearance only to a brief mention. Look on for Shirley: A Novel

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