Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath

By Jami Deise

What makes you turn the page?

As a reader, I’m mostly drawn to genre fiction. Loosely speaking, genre fiction is plot-based fiction that follows a certain set of parameters. Mysteries, thrillers and suspense keep readers turning pages as they wonder who did it and whether the protagonist and her friends and family will survive. Romance readers are looking for those magical moments that drive two people together, and the required happily-ever-after. Fans of women’s fiction, including chick lit, want to know how the heroine will cope with the new relationship circumstances and what epiphanies she will have.

And literary fiction? I have to be honest – I’m not a huge fan. I’m not into quiet stories, pages of description, long scenes where very little happens. I don’t believe writing should be admired for clever turns of phrase, complex sentence structure or unique metaphors. Tell me a story. Tell me a story that keeps me turning pages, wondering and guessing about what’s going to happen next.

Literary fiction usually reveals itself in an Amazon or back cover blurb, and other than certain book club selections, I’ve done a fair job of avoiding it. However, The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath, Kimberly Knutsen’s debut novel, slipped in under my radar. I thought I was requesting women’s fiction. But there’s very little plot in this nearly 400-page book.

Also, no Sylvia Plath. And her journals remain lost.

The journals in question are the conception of Wilson Lavender, women studies instructor and PhD candidate. He already has one perfect sentence, and he’s confident that these fictional lost journals, his planned dissertation, will shoot out of him like a missile. He is, after all, a genius.

Too bad his wife Katie – who already earned her PhD in psychology, although she’d prefer to spend her days eating chocolate, reading People magazine, and seducing her 15-years-younger neighbor – doesn’t think so. She sees Wilson as a morose recovering alcoholic who’d rather sleep than work, help around the house, or kill the mice who’ve infested the kitchen of their too-small condo.

This condo, already stuffed with the couple, their three kids, and their old dog, becomes suffocating when Katie’s pregnant sister January moves in. With all three children and the dog now sleeping with their parents, it’s not surprising that Wilson starts to see his co-worker Alice Cherry as more than just a colleague – especially when she asks for his help on her dissertation about life as a stripper.

Knutsen is an enormously talented writer, and this novel is a true achievement. But for a genre fan like myself, reading it was a chore. It is a completely character-driven book, written from the points of view of Katie, Wilson and January. There are pages and pages of characters staring up at the ceiling, having panic attacks, fighting insomnia, chasing lost dogs, and ruminating about past loves. Despite all the education between them, Wilson and Katie are both about as mature as the average 13-year-old. (January, a high school dropout, has that excuse for her attitude.) And Katie and January both have sexual violence in their past. The sections of the book that deal with what happened to them are so specific, that readers who are triggered by these events might not be able to handle reading them. I’m not sure whether I was supposed to connect Katie’s childhood abuse to her casual attitude toward adultery; January’s incident happened when she was (legally) an adult.

These are not likable characters. Yet, they are incredibly real and vivid. But I wouldn’t want any of them in my house. January would smoke pot in my bathroom, Katie would try to seduce my son, and Wilson would leave behind a mess. I feel awful for their kids.

The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath is a very well-written book. For fans of both women’s fiction and literary fiction – for readers who like uncomfortable characters – it might be perfect. But if you’re looking for a quick read with plenty of plot twists, you may want to keep looking.

Thanks to Northern Illinois University Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.