POISON by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer


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The epic saga of a landmark British poet and his three wives, two of whom committed suicide.

Schaeffer (The Snow Fox, 2004, etc.) seems to be making her own oblique contribution to the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath cottage industry via this vast, overwhelming vortex of a novel built on the life of promiscuous Peter Grovesnor, “a man with an immeasurable weakness for women” and a gargantuan gift for poetry. Less a narrative, more a spreading ink blot of reminiscence and reflection, the story, which always keeps Peter’s death at its center, shifts its point-of-view between the perspectives of a range of family members and literary friends while also moving back and forth in time. Peter’s first wife, Evelyn, was a manic and gifted American poet who gave birth to two children, Sophie and Andrew. Her decision to gas herself was subsequently copied by Peter’s second wife, Elfie, who killed their daughter as well as herself. Needing a mother for Sophie and Andrew, Peter made a third—calculated, loveless—marriage to Meena, who bestrides the novel as gothically as any wicked stepmother. Hateful, malicious and martyred, Meena lies about Peter’s last wishes in an attempt to disinherit both the children and Peter’s sister Sigrid. Reaching toward myth in its interpersonal dynamics yet stalled as a work of storytelling, the book circles its group of living and dead, and its themes of talent, mortality and pain, to the point of exhaustion. Beyond the bickering, the suffering and the brooding, the principal interest lies in the degree to which Schaeffer’s story is or is not a roman à clef. Peter, for all his purported charisma, seems the least vivid figure here.

A massive, speculative, ornamental flourish in the margins of literary history. Skillfully written, but more obsessive than compulsive.

Pub Date: April 24th, 2006
ISBN: 0-393-06101-9
Page count: 608pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2006


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