Letters Home – by Sylvia Plath

Non-Fiction

TW: Depression, suicide.

Everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath: the successful poet who tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty, her children in the next room. You’ve probably read her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, too. Letters Home, however, offers an entirely different perspective on her life. The collection of her letters spans her time at Smith College until just a week before her death. Since most of the letters are to her mother, and the collection is highly edited by her, the tone is generally more optimistic and the content more everyday than the author’s creative work. (My edition is from 1975 and was highly edited by Plath’s mother. Later collections of her letters, including the most recent volume, published in 2018, include a wider array of letters and cover a longer time period.)

The book cover proclaims that the collection “builds with the intensity of a novel.” This is true in some sense — it’s gripping and entertaining throughout. But that’s not what makes it special. Unlike with most novels, you already know how Letters Home will end. Yet far from spoiling the shock, it supplements the reading experience with a darker under-layer: however happy she may seem, you can’t help remembering that it won’t last. As Dan Chiasson writes in The New Yorker, “The experience of reading these letters, even at their most joyous, cannot be separated from what we know is coming.” In many of her letters, she describes contentment that few enjoy. So how did things get so bad? Or were they never perfect to start with? This kind of nuanced, skeptical reading of biographical texts is rare, and makes for a more interesting and insightful experience.

The letters also strike a great balance in their content, neither excessively navel-gazing nor focusing too much on the day-to-day. Perhaps that is the advantage of being written in the present rather than in retrospect (which Plath never had the privilege to do). Regardless, the book is satisfyingly readable — I’ve near read a non-fiction book with such ease.

In a sense, the book recreates Plath’s suicide in the abrupt end to the letters. There is no final, satisfying ‘goodbye’ letter at the end of the collection; there is only a brief note by her mother. As a result, you experience the effects of her death almost in real time, and mourn the loss of Sylvia from your own life: since you receive her constant commentary in the form of letters for the entirety of the book, it feels as though she has stopped writing to you. This creates the visceral sense of a life cut short. This is amplified by all of her plans which never came to fruition, making you mourn, too, all that could have been but never was.

Letters Home prompts you to realize that mental health issues affect many different people, and often remain hidden, expressing themselves in varied ways. In the midst of marital troubles, she slips back into a depression rivaled only by the period surrounding her suicide attempt while in college. But this wasn’t necessarily inevitable, or if it was, it didn’t have to end the way it did. As a reader, you wonder whether she might have avoided her premature end if she’d had greater access to mental health support, if she hadn’t had to worry so much about money, or if Ted hadn’t been so dismissive in their last phone call. You ruminate, as her mother likely did, whether she would have survived if she’d moved back home to Massachusetts. Of course, everyone is responsible for their own mental wellness, but external factors can make that impossible. Plath’s tragic end can be a reminder to check in on the people you care about.

I would highly recommend Letters Home to anyone even remotely interested in Sylvia Plath’s life, or in the life of a writer in general. The book is certainly dated in some of its language, particularly about people of colour, Jews, and women. With that in mind, and considering its sensitive themes, it is probably not appropriate for early teens or younger. Nonetheless, this book offers a fascinating insight into the life of an author so often overshadowed by her death.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Pace: Medium

Buy at AbeBooks (UK)

Buy at AbeBooks (US)

Top Five ‘Coming of Age’ books

Top Five books

This is a little different to what I usually do, but as we’re coming to the end of the academic year, I thought it was appropriate – we can all get a little sentimental. Here are my favourite coming-of-age books, spanning from beloved classics to iconic YA’s.

to_kill_a_mockingbirdInspiring classic: To Kill a Mockingbird – By Harper Lee 

I have this book to thank for inspiring my sense of justice and love for books. I read it for the first time when I was around ten, and have since re-read it, regarding it from a completely different perspective; I’m sure I will go on to read it many more times. Scout Finch, the protagonist, lives in Alabama with her brother Jem and doting father Atticus. The book accounts parts of her childhood, including a devastating trial that Atticus, an esteemed lawyer, was involved in. A tale of life in the South, justice and morality, it’s one for the ages.


Humorous and thought-provoking: Holes – By Louis Sachar

515ml3nzwxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is another book that was a big part of my reading ‘career’ – I’ve read every one of Sachar’s books at least once. There’s something fantastic about a well-written tale of misfortune, and this one’s no exception. The Yelnats’ curse was passed on to Stanley, who was unjustly sent to a juvenile detention centre because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At Camp Green Lake, where he’s sent, there’s no lake – only countless holes, where boys have dug holes to ‘build character’. Soon, Stanley and his newfound friends realize that the holes aren’t just for character improvement – the warden is looking for something, and the boys embark on a mission to find out what. A funny, creative story of punishment and redemption, Holes is the quintessential light read for all ages.

61t67xhl2cl-_sx321_bo1204203200_
Eye-opening and reflective: Perks of Being a Wallflower – By Stephen Chbosky

Part of the reason that I’m so crazy about this book, and film, is that I really relate to it; I could see myself in Charlie, the protagonist – and I know that a lot of people feel the same way. An awkward, introspective freshman (in high school – equivalent to a year 10), Charlie is a wallflower attempting to find his way around the unchartered realms of new friends, parties, dating and mixtapes. But his story is deeper than that, as the reader quickly deduces, because he has deep-rooted, previously unaddressed issues that have a had a huge effect on his life. You’ll love, laugh and cry reading this moving book.

Entertaining: The Manifesto on How to be Interesting – By Holly Bourne

I owe much of my perspective and knowledge on popularity and ‘being interesting’ to this book, which I have read so many times I’ve lost count (that seems to be a recurring fact in this list – take it a22533460s a good sign). The protagonist, Bree, takes it upon herself to become more interesting to write better books – she’s an aspiring – in her words ‘failed’ – author whose books have been rejected by every publisher in the country. She’s also a cynical teenager who’s considered a nobody at school. Determined to leave behind her insipidity in search of popularity (for book success), Bree resolves to become someone worth reading about, infiltrating the popular set and becoming a new, more confident – and bitchier – version of herself.


Haunting and enlightening: The Bell Jar – By Sylvia Plath

‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

The Bell Jar is an iconic, semi-autobiographical account of Esther Greenwood’s slide into plath04depression and her consequent rehabilitation. Famed for its wry humour and intense, credible descriptions of mental illness, Plath’s only novel questions the roles of women in society and the meaning of life. This book is deeply haunting – I’m not sure I truly understood everything that was going on, or picked up on every metaphor, but the story and the characters ‘spoke to me’ in a direct way; I felt guided by the book. Famed as a rite of passage, t
his book is a must-read for those looking to branch out into the world of ‘readable’ classics about being young.

 

What are your favourite ‘coming of age’ books? Comment down below 🙂