This is almost two books in one. It starts with a brilliantly written, but fairly typical, coming of age tale about Esther a 19 year-old student struggling with decisions about what her future holds, coming into contact with the wider world for the first time in New York, and juggling her studies with dating and friendships and pressures to choose between career and marriage/motherhood. Then things take a darker turn as Esther’s ‘eccentricities’ and anxieties become more extreme and she starts to lose control as her mental health slides into crisis. If one didn’t know the history of Sylvia Plath I think one wouldn’t see this shift coming from the witty, sharp, well observed and cynical but fairly gentle and comic first half.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”
Esther is in many way a very lucky young woman (albeit most of her advantages have been earned through intelligence and hard work). She has a scholarship to a top college, a supportive mother, she’s attractive and physically healthy, and her handsome medical student boyfriend wants to marry her. On top of this she wins a prestigious internship to learn about and contribute to a bunch of New York magazines, this is more a prize than serious work as the organisers lay on parties and free gifts over the weeks of the scheme, but it is also a serious opportunity to make contacts and learn about the industry. She should be on top of the world, OK the 1950s in the US aren’t the perfect time to be a woman but Esther has choices and opportunities most woman at this time would dream of. The choices are part of the problem, Esther finds herself overthinking everything, putting extreme pressure on herself to live up to her high achieving childhood and youth as she enters adulthood. The story is not all doom and gloom though, Esther is witty and cynical (while not always that nice!), some of her actions and observations early in the book had me laughing out loud.
This part of the tale I think everyone could relate to. Esther’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know herself yet. While sparkling on paper and on the surface she actually lacks inner confidence. This is true of many young (and not so young) people trying to work out their place in the world.
The second part of the story shows that Esther has real problems above and beyond what most of us face. Whether triggered by pressure or just part of her mental make up her mind fails to cope with life and she tips over into a kind of madness, she can no longer function normally and begins to act in a dangerous self-destructive way. It is a stunning account of a mental breakdown from the inside and feels painfully honest.
The book is given extra poignancy by the knowledge, that most literature fan will have, that Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30. In places the book feel almost intrusive as it feels like we are seeing within Syliva Plath’s tortured brain and observing the condition that would one day kill her – a painful privilege given to us by a brilliant woman.