The previous biographers of Plath (1932–1963) didn’t really get it, writes Rollyson (Journalism/Baruch Coll.; Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, 2012, etc.).
On the first page, the author calls Plath “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature,” and he continually returns to Monroe, whose relationship with Arthur Miller was igniting about the time as Plath’s with Ted Hughes. Rollyson also alludes repeatedly to the myth of Isis (see title) and periodically mentions other myths and some Shakespeare and Brontë—all to establish patterns and precedents for Plath’s story. Although such analogies can sometimes seem forced and extraneous, they do provide a different sort of context for this saddest of stories. Rollyson promises early that he will not write much about context or about Plath’s specific works, though he does some of each, discussing, for example, her early poem “Pursuit,” The Bell Jar, “Three Women” and numerous other works. The author pretty much just rehearses the Plath story, identifying various levels of villains (her mother, Hughes and his sister—and his lover, Assia Wevill, who also committed suicide), focusing on relevant letters but also reminding us of some small things that surprise and delight. At Smith, she once graded for Newton Arvin, and she endeavored, with Hughes’ encouragement, to memorize one poem per day. Important and poignant what-if moments also emerge. Her relationship with A. Alvarez, Hughes’ destruction of the diary of her final days—what might these have meant? What might we have learned?
A mostly successful attempt at a fresh understanding through analogies, but the enduring sadness of her loss threatens, as ever, to overwhelm.