October 2020

Red Comet

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These days, Sylvia Plath is often considered part of the intense realm of the teenage girl. Her name comes up again and again alongside figures such as Lana del Rey in articles referencing the “sad girl aesthetic.” When my daughter saw my copy of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath lying bricklike by my chair, she reacted with surprise: “Oh! They sing about her in the Heathers musical!” Somehow this poet, named a genius in her lifetime, is now deemed “confessional” and relegated to a literary space where intellectuals raise their eyebrows knowingly and dismiss her work to 16-year-old-girl-land. (There is, of course, the larger question of why we label art consumed by teenage girls as unintelligent and lesser.)

Biographer and Plath scholar Heather Clark lifts the poet’s life from the Persephone myth it has become and examines it in all its complexity. In the massive effort that is Red Comet, Clark admirably identifies and resists the morbid tendency to look at every moment, every work, as a signpost on the way to Plath’s tragic suicide. She also liberates the supporting cast of Plath’s life from the damning and one-dimensional roles they often occupy as part of the death-myth of Plath’s life. Her husband, Ted Hughes; his lover, Assia Wevill; Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath—they are not villains but people who created art of their own, who loved and fought with Plath, who were not always good or right.

Clark’s detailed, multidimensional treatment gives Plath’s life and work its dignity, character and sense of interiority. We get the full scope of Plath’s incredible talent here, rightfully established as complicated, radiant and worthy of deep consideration. Plath was a genius. She was a woman living in a time of great social restriction for women. She had complicated and human relationships. She was mentally ill, and this mental illness both illumined her work and colored her perspective. All of these things are held alongside one another without conflict in Clark’s book.

Considering Plath in this complexifying light, Clark unlooses some of the bonds that have held back this incomparable artist. Neither a wronged icon nor a goddess of perpetual angsty teenagerhood, Plath is presented to us as a complicated woman who achieved great things both despite and because of those complications, who had meaningful and loving relationships, who could sometimes be difficult, who struggled and who overcame as often as she faltered. Red Comet allows Plath to emerge from the shadows, shining in all her intricacy and artistry.

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