THE LAST CONFESSIONS OF SYLVIA P. by Lee Kravetz, Harper, 272 pages, $25.99
Since her suicide in 1963, Sylvia Plath, the confessional poet and author of the classic coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar, has been an object of fascination and the subject of a steady stream of biographies, with the latest, Heather Clark’s Red Comet, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Plath has been given the Hollywood treatment (the flawed 2003 biopic Sylvia), inspired more than one stage play and inspired songs by an array of artists, including Ryan Adams and Lana Del Rey.
In the realm of fiction, Kate Moses based her splendid novel Wintering on the end of Plath’s life, after her storybook marriage to poet Ted Hughes fell apart because of his infidelity. It is into this rich oeuvre that journalist Lee Kravetz enters with his highly readable, entertaining The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. Part truth, part fiction, the novel is an ingenious addition to an ever-growing body of work about Plath that has helped make her an American literary icon.
Divided into nine sections, or “stanzas,” the novel consists of three storylines featuring three women connected to Plath. The first narrative centers on Estee, a 65-year-old curator employed by an auction house in Boston, who, in 2019, is charged with authenticating and auctioning off newly discovered notebooks containing a handwritten draft of The Bell Jar. The second storyline is about a lengthy letter written by Boston Rhodes, a pen name for the poet Agatha White, to her teacher Robert Lowell during which she reveals her intense jealousy of Plath, who was a member of Lowell’s poetry seminar in 1958. The fictional Rhodes is clearly based on Anne Sexton, whose real-life friendship with Plath was chronicled over the years by Sexton and others. The third storyline focuses on Ruth Barnhouse, the psychiatrist who treated Plath at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts in 1953 after her failed suicide attempt at the age of 20, the ordeal at the heart of The Bell Jar.
Expertly woven together, the three storylines tell one story. Following her breakdown in 1953, Plath enters McLean, where Barnhouse, the only female psychiatrist on staff, nurses her back to health; while there, Plath meets Lowell, a “mad poet” regularly in residence at the hospital. Five years later, Plath, now married to Hughes, takes a class with Lowell where she meets Rhodes, who believes that “Sylvia was a success in all the ways I was not.” Even so, the two women become friends and, often joined by classmates Maxine Kumin and George Starbuck, undertake martini-filled escapades in the bar at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston after class. But jealousy consumes Rhodes, who, out of spite, surreptitiously photographs Hughes with another woman at a library and then, years later, anonymously mails the picture to Plath. Seeing the incriminating picture, Rhodes decides, was the last straw for Plath, who reacted by killing herself.
It is now that the Bell Jar notebooks — the thread that connects the three storylines — come into play as they are stolen from Plath’s flat in London after her death and pass through the hands of most of the novel’s main characters — Rhodes, Barnhouse, Lowell — before arriving on the desk of Estee, who turns out to be the daughter of Rhodes, the child who once found her mother clinging to life after she tried to asphyxiate herself in a car in the garage. To authenticate the notebooks, Estee brings in Nicolas Jacob, a Plath scholar with an unwavering reverence for his subject. The resolution of the plot revolves around what becomes of the notebooks once they are sold at auction for a staggering sum of money, one much larger than anyone expected.
Last Confessions is not without its missteps, including factual errors and misrepresentations. While historical novelists have some artistic license, placing the large Plath archive at Indiana State University, as detailed in the Estee storyline, instead of Indiana University, where it is actually housed, seems more like an oversight than a plot-driven choice. In their marriage, Plath and Hughes never achieved the level of fame or wealth that would have afforded them the opportunity to pass leisure time “getting . . . sozzled on screwdrivers” with Truman Capote or “lounging at a Copenhagen outdoor cafe with Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn.” Two hundred people did not show up at Plath’s funeral; it was a modestly attended service at Hughes’s family church. And throughout the novel, Barnhouse refers to her patient as “Miss Plath”; however, during the years I knew Barnhouse, whom I interviewed about Plath, she always called her “Sylvia,” implying a personal familiarity that far exceeded the ordinary doctor-patient relationship.
In the end, though, Last Confessions captures larger truths, such as the place Plath has come to occupy in the literary canon. “It’s the darnedest thing,” a bookseller says to Rhodes at one point, “but since her death, well, I guess Plath’s become iconic.” As such, Plath is beyond ownership, which is the novel’s ultimate argument. “Some things you can’t own,” Estee tells Jacob by way of summarizing her emotions about the Bell Jar notebooks. “They belong to the world.”
In The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., Kravetz uses narratives told by other women to create the latest incarnation of Plath, who, like Virginia Woolf before her, has become, beyond the author of her poetry and prose, a character in her own right. ◀