The Estella Project, and Thoughts on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Estella Project Season 2

There are few things I love more (and can’t resist) than summer reading lists. The more books, the more lists, the better. I love reading the lists, I want to read all the books … just bring ’em all.

As reading challenges go, The #EstellaProject  Season 2 incarnation is also the Summer 2014 one, making it irresistible to me.  It’s rather simple: read one, two, or three books from this list between June 1 and September 1 and write a review in order to be eligible for a great prize. Easy, right?

Several of these happen to be books on my personal TBR shelves, so my choices include:

  • Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, because it is my friend Amy’s favorite book and she told me long ago I need to read this;
  • The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, because I’ve never read any Sylvia Plath, if you can believe that;
  • The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, because my friend Florinda from The 3 R’s Blog raves about this and I’ve been saying I will read it.

Bonus/substitute book: Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, because I’ve never read it and it just seems to be a book that one should read (from what I hear).

The Bell JarI finished The Bell Jar last night and … wow. I can’t believe I put off reading this for so long. (There’s no reason for this, by the way.)  Largely considered an autobiographical work, it’s hard not to look at The Bell Jar as practically a memoir. It’s not, of course, but there are so many similarities to Plath’s own life. Still, the novel left me with such an appreciation for Sylvia Plath as well as such profound sadness for what we as readers lost upon her death in 1963.

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student who, like Sylvia Plath herself, wins a summer scholarship to be a guest editor of a magazine based in New York. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and it would seem that her future is limitless for someone with her abundance of talent.

Until a series of disappointments – a rejection from a writing program, a two-timing boyfriend (in Esther’s view) – lead to emotionally paralyzing and life-altering indecision about her next steps regarding marriage or career.

The writing in The Bell Jar reflects what a tremendous talent Plath was; it’s incredibly well-written throughout, with sentences that imply more than they initially seem to mean ([t]he more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.”)  Yes, it occasionally jumps around a bit in time and as a first person unreliable narrator, Esther has a tendency to ramble, making it difficult for the reader to get one’s bearings. The Bell Jar is that rare book where this doesn’t seem sloppy but rather adds so much to the story – especially on audio. I listened to most of this on audio, in fact, and Maggie Gyllenhall’s narration is fabulous. With this narration, she has the perfect cynical and snarkily self-assured voice to draw the listener completely into the character of Esther, one of literature’s most memorable women.

We’re so jaded and cynical in 2014, completely incapable of being shocked by anything, it seems. But in The Bell Jar, there were several instances that caught me completely off-guard and by surprise. It’s the perfect mix of social commentary (how different things might have been for Esther and Sylvia in a few years’ time with the advent of modern pharmacology and mental health treatment ) spiced with horror within the realm of fiction.

This is likely going to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

What should I read next on my Estella Project list – Geek Love, The Sparrow, or Bastard Out of Carolina?

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Estella Project, and Thoughts on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

  1. Trish

    It’s like the universe is screaming at me to read this book! I’ve been talking all year about how I need to read it and I keep seeing it pop up. Like you, I’m not sure why I’ve been putting it off. Last year I listened to a look at Plath’s first summer in New York as a young woman (and thought to be the backdrop for The Bell Jar)–Pain, Parties, Work. It’s an easy read (I listened) and you might find it interesting now that you’ve read the book.

    I’ve been planning on reading The Sparrow. But yikes, September 1st is coming up quickly!

  2. Florinda

    You should absolutely read THE SPARROW next :-).

    I read BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA back in the 90s. Very unsettling, and parts have stuck with me for over 15 years…I’m not sure whether that’s a recommendation or not, though.

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