Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book Review: Pain, Parties, Work by Elizabeth Winder

Such a stunning cover, right?  I'd plan to buy a finished copy just based on that.  I'm such a sucker for women in beautiful dresses.  But luckily, this one is not just pretty to look at, but a totally enthralling read.  The author conducted in-depth interviews with the women Sylvia Plath spent the summer of 1953 with as a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine.  She and several other young women were chosen to guest edit the magazine's college edition.  Her experiences that summer strongly influenced her most famous literary accomplishment, her novel The Bell Jar.  This book takes a look at the historical and personal events surrounding Plath that summer through the eyes of the women who were with her.

I am so conflicted on this portion of my review.  Obviously, these are personal accounts of recollections from 50 years ago, so I wasn't expecting detailed citation or a work of literary non-fiction.  I think the author did a great job of culling personal stories and presenting them in a work of non-fiction that is intended to give the impression of a personal account, not an academic biography.

What has me conflicted is what exactly the author intended with her style.  Her writing is very much like a journal entry.  Many paragraphs aren't made up of complete sentences, but are just fragments of impressions, smells, and sights that Plath would have experienced.  It threw me off at first until I realized how closely the author's style mirrors Plath's own journals.  Her stream of consciousness style is so similar to Plath's that I began to wonder if it was deliberate.  If so, it was very well done.  If not, well, stream of consciousness doesn't work as well for me in non-fiction.

Entertainment Value
Here again I was surprised.  By all reckoning, I should have been put off by this book.  I was expecting something more biographical and academic, as opposed to what the book focuses on: seemingly mundane details of Plath's wardrobe, shopping habits, and personality quirks.  But for some reason, this book really worked for me.  I was SO INTO the clothes.  She bought another black sheath?  TELL ME MORE!  I don't mean this in a sarcastic way at all, either.  I really and truly cared about all of these details and found myself wanting more and more.  It's not even that I'm a huge Plath fan (although I did love The Bell Jar) or that I'm really into fashion or magazines or that time period.  But something about the book and the way the author presents the material absolutely captivated me.

Obviously, this is required reading for Plath fans or for those who are interested in the early days of women's journalism.  But I think it has a wider audience than just those familiar with Mademoiselle magazine or with Plath's full history.  It provides a great glimpse into a time period, a social setting, and into Plath's life and the life of young professional women during a time period when professional women were a novelty. I highly recommend trying this one out - who knows, you may just love reading descriptions of Plath's fabulous wardrobe!


  1. The author's form in writing the book is really interesting. Mimicking Plath's style is a bold move!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  2. Fabulous and thought provoking review. The writing process was really intense-- I wanted to put myself right there. I'm so glad that immediacy came through!