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!

A Give Away: Shirley Jackson: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

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*Update*
And the randomly drawn winner is Jennifer! Thanks to all for commenting and playing!

The lovely folks at Blue Rider Press sent me an extra copy of Shirley: A Novel which is a fictional account of one couple’s adventure living with the author Shirley Jackson and her family in 1964. I am reading this psychological thriller right now and a review will be up shortly. In the mean time, if you are interested in winning a copy for yourself just comment below and tell me if you’ve read any Jackson and what your favorite is. I will draw a random winner Sunday June 8th.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle…Shirley Jackson

WHALITC3*This post may contain spoilers.*

“The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently if I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf.”

Mary Katherine Blackwood. The ultimate in unreliable narrators … making the other main characters, like her older sister Constance and uncle Julian, seem just as crazy as she is. Of course, maybe they are … maybe mental health issues just run in the family. In the beginning she didn’t seem crazy exactly, just sort of eccentric … especially for an 18-year-old girl. Perhaps losing most of one’s family in a freak poisoning, having one’s sister accused and acquitted of said crime, and becoming the town’s lepers might make anyone a touch eccentric and unstable. It has to be damaging to hear the town’s children singing: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? Oh no said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” Perhaps my favorite scene is when Helen Clarke brings Mrs. Wright to tea and uncle Julian recreates that infamous dinner for her upon request: “‘The dining room…?’ Mrs. Wright said timidly. ‘Just a glance?'” There is some delightful humor in uncle Julian’s character and he ends up being my favorite.

But then cousin Charles arrives (granted to swindle their money) and “Merricat” quickly spirals beyond eccentric. The real issue for Mary Katherine goes beyond the intrusion of Charles; it is the thought that Constance is slowly making her way back to the real world after a terrible ordeal … as if she is awaking after a long sleep.  She can’t have a “normal” Constance taking charge because Merricat simply doesn’t do normal well.

“I thought that he had to be asked politely just once; perhaps the idea of going away had just not come into his mind yet and it was necessary to put it there. I decided that asking Charles to go away was the next thing to do, before he was everywhere in the house and could never be eradicated.” Unfortunately, just asking is not enough to make Charles leave and what transpires at the hands of Mary Katherine seems tragic to the reader, but living in complete isolation with Constance is a dream come true for Merricat. “‘We are on the moon at last,’ I told her, and she smiled. ‘I thought I dreamed it all’, she said.” The fact that Constance retreats so easily  back into the world Mary Katherine has created for them speaks volumes about her own sanity.

At 146 pages, this is one powerful little book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was published in 1962, three years before Shirley Jackson’s death in 1965. It was her last novel. Although it is not necessarily as famous as The Haunting of Hill House and her short story The Lottery, some consider We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be her real masterpiece. Outside of The Lottery in high school, this was my first time reading Jackson. Her writing is beautifully descriptive, complex and yet concise. There is just something about her style that really appealed to me. This book is calling out to me to be re-read to catch some of the more subtle aspects of Jackson’s writing now that I have a clear understanding of the plot.

Favorite Quote: “You will be wearing the skins of Uncle Julian; I prefer my tablecloth.” – Mary Katherine to Constance

Sassy Lady Writers Make Me Smile…

I am kind of obsessed with exploring the lives and writing of some really cool ladies. Sylvia Plath tops that list right now and I actually have an entire Plath reading list here on the blog. I lovingly refer to this as The Plath Project. However, there are other ladies that I think are cool as hell and really interest me: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Dorothy Parker. It is sort of odd that some of these are poets since I am not a huge poetry fan … mostly because I understand very little about poetry in general. Anyway, I am going to be reading a biography about each of these women along with some of their work. I think Dorothy Parker may pull ahead as a favorite due to her amazing wit. Are any of these ladies among your favorites?

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Anne Sexton
1928 – 1974

Zelda (and Scott)Fitzgerald 1900-1948

Zelda (and Scott)Fitzgerald
1900-1948

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892-1950

Edna St. Vincent Millay
1892-1950

Shirley Jackson 1916-1965

Shirley Jackson
1916-1965

Doris Lessing 1919

Doris Lessing
1919

Dorothy Parker 1893-1967

Dorothy Parker
1893-1967

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