Even aside from Sylvia Plath’s literary output, there’s always been intense interest in the writer’s short, tragic life, which ended in 1963 with her suicide at age 30. Debut novelist Lee Kravetz’s The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. is a fascinating fictional re-creation of Plath’s final decade, a paean to the allure of poetry and an investigation of the mysterious sources of literary inspiration, as told by three women close to Plath.
When Plath enters the coveted Boston poetry workshop run by famed poet Robert Lowell, her arrival ignites the professional and personal jealousy of Agatha Gray, a contemporary who publishes under the pseudonym Boston Rhodes. Plath is the Mozart to Rhodes’ Antonio Salieri, “a success in all the ways I was not,” as Rhodes bitterly summarizes it. As she describes in a lengthy, anguished letter to Lowell, Rhodes is convinced that Plath is the only thing standing between her and the status of “Major Voice” in the confessional poetry movement emerging in the 1950s.
Estee, a master curator at a struggling Boston auction house, also has her own personal connection to Plath’s story. In 2019, three spiral notebooks containing a previously unknown draft of Plath’s posthumous semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, are discovered in the attic of an abandoned home. As Estee supervises the sale of the notebooks in her final auction before retirement, she wrestles with her misgivings about allowing this literary treasure to pass into private hands.
In addition to the voices of these fictional characters, Kravetz introduces Ruth Barnhouse, the real-life psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts who treated Plath with several unconventional therapies following the poet’s first attempted suicide in 1953. Ruth describes her difficult work with Plath’s persistent depression in a series of candid journal entries: “Miss Plath is no longer chasing literary prizes, top marks, or perfection,” she writes. “I fear she is chasing death itself.”
Rotating between the three voices, Kravetz skillfully orchestrates a chorus of regret and longing that swirls around Plath. The women, each of whom has been touched by Plath in markedly different ways, try to make sense of their lives and their relationship to hers. Into this narrative Kravetz cleverly inserts a subplot that pursues the mystery of how Plath’s notebooks fall into the hands of a pair of aliterate Boston house flippers. The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. will intrigue admirers of Plath’s work and likely introduce her to a new group of readers.