Shirley 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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