Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath – by Heather Clark

Goodreads Synopsis: The highly anticipated new biography of Sylvia Plath that focuses on her remarkable literary and intellectual achievements, while restoring the woman behind the long-held myths about her life and art. With a wealth of never-before-accessed materials—including unpublished letters and manuscripts; court, police, and psychiatric records; and new interviews—Heather Clark brings to life the brilliant daughter of Wellesley, Massachusetts who had poetic ambition from a very young age and was an accomplished, published writer of poems and stories even before she became a star English student at Smith College in the early 1950s.

Determined not to read Plath’s work as if her every act, from childhood on, was a harbinger of her tragic fate, Clark evokes a culture in transition, in the shadow of the atom bomb and the Holocaust, as she explores Plath’s world: her early relationships and determination not to become a conventional woman and wife; her conflicted ties to her well-meaning, widowed mother; her troubles at the hands of an unenlightened mental-health industry; her Cambridge years and thunderclap meeting with Ted Hughes, a marriage of true minds that would change the course of poetry in English; and much more.

Clark’s clear-eyed portraits of Hughes, his lover Assia Wevill, and other demonized players in the arena of Plath’s suicide promotes a deeper understanding of her final days, with their outpouring of first-rate poems. Along with illuminating readings of the poems themselves, Clark’s meticulous, compassionate research brings us closer than ever to the spirited woman and visionary artist who blazed a trail that still lights the way for women poets the world over.

Find on Goodreads and Book Depository.

Content Warning: Mention suicide and mental health issues.

Standing at about 930ish pages of actual biography (the last 70 ish pages are references) this is one of the longest and most detailed biographies I’ve read, maybe ever! I am just in awe of Heather Clark’s dedication to her research and her subject. I’m going to bet this is the longest book I read all year.

I believe what I enjoyed the most about this Sylvia Plath biography is the fact that Clark tries as best as she was able to give us the entire picture of Plath’s life. She doesn’t stop at Plath and Ted Hughes but also gives us biographical details on both of Plath’s parents, details on the various men in Plath’s life, the background of Assia Wevill, and more. Clark is not trying to solve the issue of why Plath committed suicide, she is simply writing about the life of this fabulous poet and woman who struggled with real issues. And I believe that Clark does a really good job of treating her subject with respect, and writes with respect to the members of Plath’s family.

After reading this book I feel as though I have a much clearer picture in my head of who Plath was, and why her writing is an important part of literature. Clark talks a lot about the sexism of the time that Plath was writing and shows how it affected both Plath’s writing and her self-image. Between that and the historical details Clark adds about mental health treatment in the 50’s and 60’s it’s really quite amazing that Plath wrote at all. It made me glad to be alive in a time where I can seek treatment for my mental health without being stigmatized too much. I just feel so much sympathy and sadness for Plath.

And I think that’s part of what Clark set out to do. She wanted us to look beyond the turbulent marriage to Hughes, to look beyond how Plath has become simply the mother poet who killed herself, and to really look at Sylvia Plath as a human being whose life ended far too soon. Plath is more than just her death and more than just The Bell Jar. She was a brilliant poet, an educated mother, and a person who achieved much despite the times she lived in.

I finished reading this book wanted to read it again, and devour all of Plath’s work. Alas, I had to give the book back to the library. But now I can share my thoughts with you all and highly recommend Red Comet. I gave it five stars on Goodreads.

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