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Promise cut short

Full of angst and ire, in the deep funk only a 16-year-old can inflict on her family, I wailed one evening to my mother, after a contentious discussion, "I have to get away from here."

She fixed me with her eye and did what I never thought she would; she made two telephone calls, one to my school and one to my aunt and uncle who were living in London. Two weeks later, I was riding down Piccadilly Street on a red double-decker bus by myself, getting sick on my first cigarette (a Galouise) and feeling great. So began my stay in England, a wonderful adventure. But that's another story. Among my discoveries during that time was Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. I was already familiar with the Ariel poems and loved them (without completely getting them _ still don't), but only happened, by chance, in a London bookstore, on Plath's only novel which was not yet widely known in the States.

The Bell Jar is a thinly veiled autobiographical account (so close to the bone, Plath's mother objected to it being published, so it didn't appear in the United States until 1970 though it came out in England in 1963), the story of Esther Greenwood, brilliant student and promising writer who is awarded a summer internship at a prestigious women's magazine. For reasons not wholly explained, she starts unraveling, attempts suicide and eventually ends up in a mental hospital undergoing shock treatments. She recovers, seems to make peace with her demons and prepares to re-enter the world whole again.

I read through it without a break. It spoke to me. Here was a woman who understood the way things were. Okay, she was mired in something exponentially more serious, mentally, than I. But there was such glamor to her misery, such conviction, throwing away a stellar college opportunity, a potential career in New York, because she would not compromise her soul. I was transported.

Now, decades later, I find the book tedious, not a long book but a long read. I've seen Splendor in the Grass and Girl, Interrupted, and found them both, to varying degrees, just as melodramatic but more compelling. Catcher in the Rye, another in the misunderstood-youth-genre that I also reread for purposes of comparison, has held up far better.

That isn't to say The Bell Jar is a bad book. It's full of promise, obviously the work of a young writer trying to find her voice. Fortunately, for the world, she didn't choose a novelistic one; she's a far better poet.

A first-person narrative, the book relies too heavily on metaphor and imagery, some of it painfully cliched ("By nine in the morning, the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream."), some remarkably beautiful ("There would be a black, six-foot-deep gap hacked in the hard ground. That shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the whiteness, and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness in Joan's grave.").

Despite its flaws, there is deep poignancy in it, a sense of doom not averted, simply delayed, because we know her history. When she writes, near the book's end, "If I had to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad," we know, by 1963, she had had two babies and, after sealing their room, put her head in a gas oven and killed herself, a month after The Bell Jar's publication in England. Ariel was published posthumously.

Plath described the book to a friend as "an autobiographical apprentice work I had to write to free myself from the past."

One is never free of the past, of course. Perhaps she realized it, in some dark moment, and understood that fictive optimism and hope do not mitigate reality, believing that looking ahead was the same as looking back.