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BOOK REVIEW:

Shirley : a novel

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Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of novelist Shirley Jackson, and since she died at 48 (in her sleep, of heart failure),  December 2016 will be the centenary of her birth.  Best remembered for her short story "The Lottery" and her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson has acquired some new readers in the past year thanks to Penguin reprints of the four novels she published between 1948 and 1958, including the only one set in her native San Francisco Bay area:  The Road Through the Wall.

For much of her writing career, Shirley and her family of four children lived in Bennington, Vermont, where her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught at Bennington College--a women's school in those days.  This novel, set in the last year of Shirley's life, centers on a (fictional) young couple from Philadelphia, Rose and Fred Nemser, who come to live with the Hymans.  Fred, a Ph.D. candidate at Temple, has landed a job assisting Stanley with his folklore classes, and Rose, his pregnant 19-year-old wife, a former student he married after a whirlwind courtship, is thrilled and a little scared to be meeting the famous Shirley Jackson.  The initial plan is for Fred and Rose to rent an apartment, but Shirley finds Rose intriguing and a possible stimulus to her writing, so they wind up living in the spare room, with Rose helping out with shopping and meal preparation.

Rose's apprehension turns out to be amply justified, because Shirley Jackson Hyman is a complicated person.  Her moods vary widely; she can be a sympathetic listener and a charming hostess to the literary celebrities who come to visit, but she can also be abrupt and hypercritical at times.  She seems to have a remarkable ability to read Rose's thoughts and to sense details about her troubled childhood.  At one point she tells Rose that the two of them must stick together as "girls without mothers", though both are emotional rather than literal orphans.  Part of Shirley's volatility stems from progress or lack thereof on her current writing project, but the dynamics of her relationship with Stanley are also involved.  They are clearly deeply in love, and Shirley considers him the best judge of her writing, but his constant infidelities with both students and "townies" lead to noisy arguments and drinking binges.  As a contemporary of the Bennington students, Rose finds it hard to imagine pudgy, rumpled Stanley as a lover--at least at first.

Rose is as complicated as Shirley, in her own way.  Her chaotic, often impoverished upbringing has left her in need of parental authority figures.  She coldly rejects the Hyman children's friendly overtures, envying their relationship with Shirley and Stanley, and she becomes fixated on Paula Welden, a Bennington student who mysteriously vanished while hiking back in 1946.  Though Shirley used the incident in her writing, both she and Stanley deny knowing Paula, but Rose senses that they are lying and may have been involved somehow in her disappearance.  She also feels the Hymans' Victorian house as a living presence, sympathizing with her or disapproving of her presence.  In the course of her months in Bennington, Rose gives birth to her daughter and experiences a tumultuous series of events that will affect the rest of her life.  Not surprisingly, her relationship with Shirley does not end well, but in looking back ten years later, Rose comes to realize the impact she had on what proved to be the last of Shirley's literary output.

Shirley the novel has a few minor weak spots:  We learn just enough about Rose's parents and her long-suffering older sister to want to know more, and this lack of detail sometimes makes it hard to see why Rose reacts or behaves as she does.  But Shirley and Stanley are fascinating and believable human beings, and there are a number of beautifully written, sometimes amusing, set pieces, including a very entertaining cameo appearance by Bernard Malamud and his wife.  Anyone who reads this book will want to explore the fictional creations of Shirley Jackson--particularly her last, unfinished novel, published posthumously as Come Along With Me.

 

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