Read, If You Like: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Welcome back to my occasional book recommendation series! I don’t like to overtly review books, because what I disliked about a novel might be what someone else liked about it, so it feels unfair to the author to write a post moaning about a novel I didn’t like. I also personally try to avoid reading too many reviews before reading a book, in case it doesn’t live up to the hype or I feel obliged to agree with reviewers when I actually don’t. Let me make up my own mind, I guess is what I’m saying. That said, I enjoy doing Read, If You Like because some of the best recommendations I’ve had have been where people have said ‘oh, you like X and Y book or film? Then you’ll probably enjoy this one!’ They are usually right.

So without further ado, the first Read, If You Like for 2021!

Read The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963), if you like:

  • Candid, realistic depictions of mental illness (note that if you are currently in the depths of depression, you might find that The Bell Jar either speaks to you and gives you hope or just pushes you a further into the depths, so please consume responsibly and also seek out some professional help)
  • Protagonists, like our lady Esther Greenwood, who are simultaneously very annoying and very real. I have met various Esther Greenwoods. I have been a bit of a Esther Greenwood. I think a lot of teenage girls and young women stray into Esther territory at some point, not necessarily in terms of her mental illness but in terms of being frustrating, frustrated and hugely overwhelmed by life’s opportunities
  • A snapshot of 1950s Americaaaa
  • With all of its lovely bigotry, I should add, just as a heads up if you’re not in the mood for casual racism
  • So much has changed
  • Deliberate, easily readable prose (Sylvia Plath was a complicated human being but this book felt accessible. I was expecting to find this A Very Tough Read, given its main topic is mental health, and although I didn’t skip through it, the prose is concise and draws you in. It’s not one of those books where every sentence feels laboured)
  • Irritating secondary characters
  • Some of them are so, so irritating
  • Reading around the subject, to an extent. Adding this in because on the back of my copy, the blurb proclaims that The Bell Jar was published a month before Plath’s suicide. I assume this nugget is on most blurbs. It was impossible, therefore, to read it without drawing parallels between Plath’s life and Esther’s. I studied Plath for a while at A Level so I remembered a bit about her experiences of depression and her death, and I kept thinking, ‘this feels autobiographical.’ To write about depression that well, you really have to have experienced it, which is probably why the book feels authentic. It is authentic. It’s also just a bit sad, you know? It’s hard not to wonder what sort of person Plath would have become had she lived past 30. So if you don’t know much about Sylvia Plath before reading The Bell Jar, except for what’s on the burb/author page of your copy, you might feel compelled to Google her afterwards. And if you did know about her, then that knowledge will colour your experience of The Bell Jar, and then your reading of The Bell Jar will influence how you feel about Plath. They’re always going to be linked in the reader’s mind.
Spine of 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath, plus a pen and pencil, on lined paper and envelopes.
I tried to do a proper photo of the cover, but it’s so grey and rainy here today that the lighting/shadows made everything very, very ugly. Enjoy this book spine instead!

So, yeah, not the easiest of reads but definitely worth a try if you’re interested in any of the above. I am cleansing my palette, I should add, both with Pandora’s Jar and with The Scorpio Races, which I actually tried to borrow from the library in November but lockdown got in the way. It is a very November book, The Scorpio Races. Pandora’s Jar is about women of Greek myths and how history’s done them dirty, ie by calling Pandora’s jar a box and conflating Pandora with Eve. The Bible’s Eve, not, like, Killing Eve’s Eve. You probably got that. Um. Follow me on Goodreads if you want to keep up with what I’m reading. I think I’m following myself on Goodreads. How is that possible when I only have one account?!

I will see you soon-ish for another one of these, maybe for Pandora’s Jar? With the country in lockdown there’s not much to do except my college work, writing and reading, and you guys don’t need to see my notes for the Effective Business Processes assignment. I drew a diagram the other day that looks like a blueprint for a bathroom’s plumbing. It actually has something to do with ‘critical path analyses’.

Told you you wouldn’t want to know. Leave a comment if you’ve read The Bell Jar, or Plath’s poetry – what did you think of it?

Look after yourselves!


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