I will tell them stories from the life of a master curator: the pilfered Bruegel Ten, the mishandled matchbook, the stolen Bible, the exploited final chapter of a famed novel, the busted typewriter, the poet’s lost note, and the stolen notebooks of The Bell Jar—disparate objects, each one solely possessing the power to absolve us of our unforgivable sins against them.
I’ve written about how discovering Sylvia Plath changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Like many Plath lovers, I was and continue to be entranced as much by her life story as I am with her poetry. She will always be an interest of mine.
But if I’m totally honest, there are more poems by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, which are touchstone poems of mine. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” “Her Kind,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The House,” “Sylvia’s Death” and many others have given me courage, helped me feel less alone, and given me literary understanding of what feminism means.
And yet I’m not sure Anne Sexton and I could’ve ever been friends. Especially after reading her daughter’s memoir, I’m not sure she was a fantastically kind or even moral person. (This begs the question if Sylvia Plath and I could’ve been friends and I think the answer is probably not, but for different reasons.)
Can you separate the artist from her art?
But the truth for me is that both of these writers—who both died before I could read—have had an immense impact upon me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them.
So I approached Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., with immense caution.
This is because the story of Sylvia Plath’s life is intrinsically woven with her death, and because it is easy to sensationalize or romanticize it. Easy, and done, and I won’t engage with that, even if her suicide is what drew my attention to her in the first place.
But it is also a novel about two writers whose work I love.
So I went ahead and read it.
The book isn’t really about Sylvia Plath, but about some of the people whose lives intersected with hers: her therapist and, yes: Anne Sexton. In a sense, this is much more the last confessions of Anne Sexton, who is called Boston Rhoades in the novel. And she is not painted in a flattering light. In fact, I’d say the Anne Sexton you find here is more a caricature: obsessed with fame and with beating Sylvia Plath in popularity. While I’m certain that the real-life Anne Sexton would not be a bosom friend, I am also certain she was more well-rounded than the novel presents her as.
The book also tells the story of Estee, who is an curator for an auction house; the last object she is going to curate before retiring is a handwritten copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar.
These three women rotate around Sylvia Plath’s story in interesting ways.
It was an intriguing book: a good mystery around where the handwritten notebooks came from and how they got there, an exploration of the midcentury social experiences women writers had, a study of how mental health therapies have changed.
Despite my initial hesitation, I am glad I read it. It reminded me of how it felt when I was 19 or so, delving headfirst into the worlds of poetry and feminism. I have lost some of that enthusiasm and wonder along the way, and this book nudged me to find it again.
But I continue to remain annoyed by the title. I think the author understands that a certain demographic will read anything about Sylvia Plath, but this isn’t Plath’s story.
Instead it is a story about how Plath influenced others.
And I can absolutely relate to that.