Shirley is Fascinating and Engrossing

ShirleyShirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started Shirley, I thought this book is going to be amazing. Much of it was–especially if you’ve read a handful of Shirley Jackson’s novels and are familiar with her short stories. Shirley reads like a Jackson novel in both style and subject-matter.

For about one school year, a young couple moves in with Shirley Jackson and her husband, the academic Stanley Hyman. The town, Shirley and Stanley, and the house itself begin to take their toll on the young couple. Rose, our innocent (un)trusty narrator, wants nothing more but to become BFFs with Shirley. She wants to be “seen” by her. She wants to be understood.

We read this in my book club, and we had some discussion of the fact that this creepy, not exactly flattering fictional story was written about real-life people. Some of us thought that Shirley and Stan aren’t tucked back far enough in history to be subjected to something like this. Personally, I found this approach innovative and a bit ingenious; imagining Shirley Jackson in different contexts—as a wife, as a mother, as a literary figure—lent me an interesting perspective on her and her work. But that’s the danger of it, right? Fact, fiction, and the work itself have been all tangled up.

(Side note: I even appreciated the name-dropping: J.D. Salinger, Betty Friedan, Dylan Thomas [did that interaction really happen?!], et al.)

I was all set to give this entertaining novel five stars . . . until the ending happened. What started as a tightly-plotted novel began to unravel in the last quarter. The party scene went on and on, not adding much to the characters or story. Too much time got devoted to explaining how things worked out with Rose and Fred, too.

The ending did circle back to the “does anyone see me?/am I important?/will I be remembered?” theme introduced in the beginning, and the resolution to that was quite satisfying. Therefore, I will settle on a solid four-star rating. I enjoyed it!

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It’s Finally Here: The Cover of Broken Homes & Gardens

We went through so many cover designs: the lone tomato vine snaking around the title, the tomato vine peeking through the picket fence. Bright sky, dark sky. Flaky paint on vertical fence slats, flaky paint on horizontal fence slats. It’s a tricky business, landing on the right design. It has to do so many things in an instant. Most importantly, it needs to capture the attention of the right kind of reader. But who is the right reader for Broken Homes & Gardens? I pictured a twenty-something girl with black-rimmed eyes, sitting in a Portland coffee shop drinking Americanos. Her hair would be tangled. She would be wearing all black and listening to The Cure. She would be frowning. Maybe crying.

“Huh,” said the team over at Blank Slate Press. “We were picturing a twenty-something woman as well, but our twenty-something woman would not be wearing that much eyeliner.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“And she wouldn’t be drinking that many Americanos. Or if she was, she’d take them with cream and sugar.”

“Tell me more.”

“She probably wouldn’t be listening to The Cure.”

“I like to think of twenty-somethings listening to The Cure.”

“Okay, she can be listening to The Cure. And her hair can be tangled, but she wouldn’t be crying.”

“Fine,” I said.

And so, after this completely fictional conversation, I began to imagine a different kind of reader, a reader who enjoys off-beat love stories about kind of messed up but mostly endearing characters. She wants a book that is entertaining and also kind of moody and heart-wrenching. But mostly entertaining. She’s going to be walking through Powell’s or browsing through her Kindle and see the perfect book for her. It won’t have a tomato vine or a picket fence. It will look like this:
Broken Homes and Gardens Cover FINAL v. 2
She’ll gravitate toward it. She’ll take it to the coffee shop and start reading it in line. She’ll order her coffee, an Americano. “Room for cream?” the barista will ask.