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Book Review: Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

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Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder is a nonfiction book about the time mentioned in the title. The book paints a portrait of Ms. Plath during a stressful, eventful and emotional summer of her life.

Twenty-year-old Sylvia Plath arrives in New York City with 19 other college-age women to work as guest editors for Mademoiselle’s college issue. This is a prestigious position which, they hope, will get them ready for life in the big city and even bigger world.

The ladies live at the Barbizon Hotel, attend shows, ballets, professional sports and participate in glamorous events.

Pain, Parties, Work is the kind of book which seems to be gaining popularity, a short nonfiction book about a specified time-frame in the life of a person. These books seem to be replacing all-encompassing biographies.

At this day and age where a somewhat decent, encompassing biography on almost every important, not-so-important and, let’s face(book) it, not-important-at-all person is at one’s fingertips 24/7 these short biographical portraits are flourishing. I can certainly understand why, when I ran a restrictive search for “Sylvia Plath biography” on Google, I got 6,430 results (417,000 results came back with just a simple search). With that much information at hand, a book which highlights a certain period does, especially if one is interested only in that specific subject, sound enticing.

There seems to be a lot of information about Sylvia Plath this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of her untimely death. To be honest, this is the first book I read about, or by, Ms. Plath. I have heard of her before, but her work never sparked my interest. There was something in the description of this book though, that did sound interesting, maybe the locale (NYC), the time period (1950s), or the subject. But what probably made me pick up this book is a variety of reasons, a combination of the ones mentioned previously plus others which I cannot put my finger on at the moment.

When I received the book I thought I had made a mistake just by looking at the cover. A picture in which the color pink (or some variation of it) is predominant, a woman wearing a fancy ruffle dress, long Cinderella gloves, jewelry on her arms, a pearl necklace, diamond earrings and a fancy hairdo sitting face forward on a chair/couch which seems to be made for the sole purpose of acting out a most dramatic and passionate fainting.

Not too attractive for someone who loves to read about World War II, espionage and other “manly” books.

Once I started reading the book all my trepidations went away; this is a remarkable story of an amazing woman living out an extraordinary adventure. Ms. Winder did an amazing job researching, including talking with first hand sources (other guest-editors) whose recollections of Ms. Plath are vivid and enchanting. The depressed image I had have of Sylvia Plath is contradictory to the image the author paints, that of flaming red lipstick, posh clothes and high heels.

The book does a great job describing the professional environment of 1950s New York City as well as making the month long adventure come to life. The assertion that the gig of “guest editor” was a defining event in Plant’s life seems to have much merit and essential to understanding her character and writing.

[Buy this book in paper or electronic (Kindle) format.]

 

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