Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley A NovelBack in January, I read my first Shirley Jackson novel: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Since then, I have been really interested in reading more of her work and finding out about the author herself. Recently, the folks at Blue Rider Press were kind enough to send me one of my very first review copies … Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. This book is a fictional account of one couple’s time spent living with Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman, in 1964 (the year before Jackson’s death). Fred Nemser accepts a position at Bennington College, where Hyman is a professor, and he and his young, pregnant wife Rose become boarders at the Hyman-Jackson home. Rose quickly forms an odd, turbulent friendship with Shirley. Sometimes it seems as if Rose is looking for a mother figure in Jackson, while other times it almost seems like she wishes she could BE Jackson.

Much like Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle Rose isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator and is the kind of girl who spends entirely too much time deep inside her own mind. This may account for the influence the house itself seems to be having over Rose. At points, I was reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: “I floated somewhere between relaxation and sleep, and felt the pulsing of the house’s life begin to throb inside me as if we shared a single heart. Not that the walls spoke, nothing so insane, but I could feel the history of footsteps treading its floors.” Except later in their stay, Rose admits the walls, the house does tell her things. I do wish I had read Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House prior to this book as I feel I may have been missing some subtle references. The house is really almost a character in itself.

The Hyman-Jackson marriage also garners attention in the novel. Their interactions, especially in front of the Nemsers and other company made me quite uncomfortable at times and reminded me a great deal of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Jackson herself is not really painted in the most flattering light through out the novel and I wonder if this is an actual reflection of Merrell’s feelings about Shirley. Ultimately, this novel speaks a great deal about love: the love between couples, the love between friends, the love between an artist and their work … specifically the messiness, unpredictability, and blurred lines of love: “But I know I’m right: that was Jackson’s gift, to understand the absurd unloveliness of love.”

The novel builds a lot of tension, but it did not provide the climax I was anticipating. Perhaps this was to be expected as the book is really more of a character/psychological study rather than plot driven. I think the highest compliment these fictional stories written within the historical context of a writer’s life can be paid is: Did the novel make you want to know more about the writer’s life and works? And in the case of Merrell’s Shirley: A Novel the answer is a resounding yes!

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