Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, by Kate Moses. St. Martin's Press. 272 pages. $23.95.
In the 40 years since her suicide at 31, poet Sylvia Plath has, like Marilyn Monroe, become an iconic, even mythic figure. Yet the fascination with her stems not so much from her extraordinary poetry as from the voyeuristic lust nurtured by our own darkest need to peel away the scars that cover wounded lives.
Certainly Plath can be triaged among the deeply wounded, and Kate Moses' book details the egregiousness of those thousand cuts with an intensity to match that which led Plath to put her head in the oven during a dreadful London winter in 1962, leaving her two young children motherless.
Wintering debuts not without pedigree; Moses, one of the founding editors of the ever-provocative online literary and political magazine, Salon.com, has researched her subject as thoroughly as any biographer. That said, the book, walking a tenuous line, fails as both biography and fiction.
Plath and Ted Hughes were the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their era without the drinking: Attractive, smart, talented, they seemed a perfect dyad destined for a great literary marriage. But the immensely talented Cambridge-educated Hughes, later England's poet laureate, was a womanizer, an egoistic cad who made Plath type his manuscripts and tend his babies while he caroused and promoted his own career. The marriage lasted through six years, two children and one miscarriage; Plath's suicide came just months after Hughes left her and their children for another woman.
Moses takes the titles of Plath's best poems as chapter headings for the novel, which pitches back and forth between the last days of Plath's life in the London flat in which Yeats had once lived and the months before their breakup at the Devon farmhouse where she and Hughes lived and she had borne their children. The descriptions of people and places are strikingly vivid, but the evocations of the main characters read with peculiar bloodlessness. We are never treated to a Hughes any woman could obsess over; he's a thoughtless, shadowy clod throughout.
Conversely, Plath reads as harried, shrewish and profoundly unsexy. There is nothing within Moses' otherwise lush rendering of place and time to evoke two people once so in love they simply had to have each other. Arguments -- and love-making and sensuality and all the other vagaries that delineate a life lived together -- happen off the page.
We see Plath humiliated time and again by Hughes, his brutalitarian literary friends and Plath's own mother. We feel for her, but it's attenuated. We are told of, rather than shown, Plath the poet and Plath the woman; perhaps if one actually knew Plath in either context one would recognize her, but the stranger, even the dedicated apostle, cannot quite grasp what happened in the little flat made turgid by lack of heat, no phone and too many bouts of flu and babies howling.
It's grim on grim, there's no denying, but what drove Plath to abandon the children who had, as she reiterates throughout the book, primed her for real life, been her greatest achievement and most momentous experience? Moses falls into the web of her own lushly overblown language (which at times mimics Plath's poetry, which itself is curiously absent from the novel, though Yeats' is not). However, Moses seems timid about getting to the heart of her characters, most definitively Plath, as if she were too awed to draw this couple with the thick, bold, Van Goghian strokes with which they actually lived, and in Plath's case, died.
Detailed as it is, Wintering will lure devotees of Plath, particularly those who continue to demonize Hughes for her death. But those seeking a literary or even literal understanding of what led to the destruction of such a flagrantly wild talent just coming into itself will be left still pondering.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books. Her weekly column on TV and politics, "The Lavender Tube," appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.