Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review of Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

Susan Scarf Merrell’s Shirley: A Novel is a psychological thriller about a young woman who lives for a year in the home of celebrated writer Shirley Jackson in the 1960s. Merrell mingles the real and the fictional in an interesting fashion, and provides a compelling character study of Jackson. The novel, however, did not captivate me as much as I had hoped.

The Story: A young woman named Rose Nemser, newly married and soon to become a mother, comes to live in the home of Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman at Bennington College in Vermont in the mid-1960s. Rose’s husband Fred is a graduate student in English, and Hyman, a noted literary critic, takes him under his wing. Jackson, of course, is the real-life author of the famous short story “The Lottery,” as well as other fiction. While the literary world considers Hyman as the more intellectual of the two, it is Jackson’s writing that pays the family’s bills.

Rose falls under the spell of the fascinating but unpredictable Shirley, hoping to emulate her as a writer and as a person. However, she begins to suspect something is amiss in the Hyman-Jackson home—there are troubling, unanswered phone calls, and gossip in the village about Stanley’s affairs. Rose finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the disappearance of a Bennington student years earlier.

What I Thought: This is a fairly unusual novel. Merrell does some interesting things here by blending real historical characters and events into her fiction. The disappearance of the student, for example, actually occurred in 1946 and is still unsolved. The novel provides a fairly intriguing character study of Shirley Jackson, and Merrell even tells the story in the way that, perhaps, Jackson herself would have. I would imagine this is a must-read for serious Jackson fans. In fact, reading this book has interested me in re-reading some of Jackson's work.

But although I appreciated the author’s intent here, I don’t think this novel is fully successful. While Merrell capably builds up tension and evokes a creepy sense of atmospheric dread, there is little pay-off in the conclusion. The suspense, for me, didn't lead anywhere, and key questions are left unanswered. Merrell alludes to some tantalizing elements about Rose’s past, but does not follow through enough on these threads. Rose, in fact, seemed little more than a cipher to me, and I struggled to find an emotional connection to her. In the end, I found Shirley to be an interesting read, but not wholly satisfying. I would rate it about 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Shirley: A Novel will be released on June 12.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As always, the opinions expressed here are fully my own.

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