I just finished an amazing book, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. I read it in two days, actually, which demonstrates that it was a great book and that I had a luxurious amount of time to read this past weekend.
I fell in love with this book as the feeling of the words washed over me. It’s a poetically lyrical novel about a poet and was simply exquisitely written. The beauty of the words reminded me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s Lila or Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness. In some literary fiction, I feel like the focus on the words distracts me from the telling of the story, and that happened for me sometimes here, but mostly it was written in a way that allowed me to enjoy the prose as a part of the larger experience of the book.
The story built slowly, bit by bit, revealing itself quietly as it went along. I hate to admit that I know nothing of Sylvia Plath. I have never read The Bell Jar, although I will now. Given that, my investment in this telling of her story came purely from this story. I enjoyed the structure of the novel, divided into stanzas, each with three chapters, one for each of the narrator/main characters, occurring on separate timelines.
Add to all that the brilliant choice to make Sylvia more of a background, mysterious character, only partly revealed through the experiences of the three women whose lives intersected with hers in various ways. This made me think about how much we truly know anyone, how much we reveal to others and them to us. The calculation inherent in what we choose to keep private and what we keep secret, and the difference between the two.
These characters are vivid and complex, and I had a great deal of empathy for them. Lee Kravetz has a background in mental health care as well as writing, and that is evident in the way he respectfully and appropriately conveys the challenges of these troubled individuals.
So many brilliant and talented artists are plagued by mental illness, often because of their depth of feeling and sensitivity, their inability to turn away from intense emotions. Kravetz puts it beautifully here, starting with an observation from Sylvia to her psychiatrist:
“…we can’t help but feel everything. The thing is, at some point I just realized the trick wasn’t to close off my heart, but to instead allow myself to feel the world in its entirety.”
The doctor then reflects:
A beautiful sentiment, I thought, though not an easy challenge to accept, and a terrific burden for those who do. No one has ever said empathy is painless…Miss Plath’s heart can hold the world in its entirety, but I worry the body that holds the heart is not nearly as strong.
The world receives wonderful gifts from painters, writers, musicians who suffer under the burden of feeling everything. I am grateful for them, for the emotional resonance they create, the way they provide a conduit for the rest of us to access our emotions, their revealing and reminding of the richness and depth of being human. I am also sad for them sometimes.
In any case, this is a beautiful telling of the lives of several interesting and disturbed women, some real historical figures and some inventions of the author and maybe all somewhere between these two. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, although I might call this a fictional biography. Is that a thing? It should be, because that would be my favorite! It reminded me of The Paris Wife or The Personal Librarian, fictionalized stories of interesting and often overlooked women.
Don’t miss out on this book! And let me know what you think after you finish reading.