On a Wintry Night in London, a young mother turned on the kitchen gas and put her head in the oven, leaving her two sleeping children upstairs, their bedroom doors sealed, their windows wide open. With that act, Sylvia Plath achieved tragic icon status, an end that overshadows her work as a writer. But in this accessible, eye-opening new biography, which focuses exclusively on one crucial month of Plath's life, June 1953, when she traveled to New York City to take up residence at the Barbizon Hotel and work as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine, it is the fun-loving, Dylan Thomas-stalking, daiquiri-drinking Plath who takes center stage.
Poet Elizabeth Winder's Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (Harper) reveals the writer as a young woman about town—a fashionista and foodie with a retinue of male admirers. Through conversations with most of the 19 other guest editors who lived and worked alongside her, all now around 80, a Plath emerges who is in many ways ordinary: She loved high heels and nursed hangovers by drinking juice and eating cold peaches in bed. Except for her intellectual gifts, she "could have been an airline stewardess or the heroine of a B movie." Adventurous, flirtatious, and ambitious, Plath reflected the aspirations and ambivalences of her generation. But traces of sadness were starting to show, in between dates, readings and hours at the office, and by the time she returned to her mother's house in Massachusetts, those fissures had begun to "split open and gape." Less than two months later, she attempted suicide for the first time.
Winder's biography reconsiders the familiar portrait, illustrating what makes Plath, for fans of The Bell Jar, "as Holden Caulfield is for young men."