Blue Rider Press: 6/12/2014
Hardcover, 288 pages
Two imposing literary figures are at the center of this captivating novel: the celebrated Shirley Jackson, best known for her short story “The Lottery,” and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and professor at Bennington College. When a young graduate student and his pregnant wife—Fred and Rose Nemser—move into Shirley and Stanley’s home in the fall of 1964, they are quickly cast under the magnetic spell of their brilliant and proudly unconventional hosts.While Fred becomes preoccupied with his teaching schedule, Rose forms an unlikely, turbulent friendship with the troubled and unpredictable Shirley. Fascinated by the Hymans’ volatile marriage and inexplicable drawn to the darkly enigmatic author, Rose nonetheless senses something amiss—something to do with nightly unanswered phone calls and inscrutable accounts of a long-missing female student. Chillingly atmospheric and evocative of Jackson’s own classic stories, Shirley is an elegant thriller with one of America’s greatest horror writers at its heart.
Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell is a recommended novel of suspense.
In Shirley, Susan Scarf Merrell has written a novel with two literary giants, novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, as the main characters. It is 1964 and newlyweds Rose and Fred Nemser are moving to Vermont where Fred will be teaching alongside Hyman at Bennington College. The young couple is invited to live with Jackson and Hyman, which is exciting for both of them. Fred enjoys Hyman while Rose is entranced by Jackson and jealous of her friendship.
The entire story is narrated by Rose. As the Hymans drink to excess and pop pills, Rose observes their open marriage, she finds herself gratified at Jackson's insults as if they were a form of kindness. As the year progresses, a pregnant Rose sees another side to Jackson and questions her devotion to her as well as Hyman's influence on her husband. And what is the truth behind the coed from Bennington who went missing years ago. The locals view Jackson as a witch and are openly hostile toward her. She is fodder for gossip. Perhaps she had something to do with the missing young woman. Or perhaps it was Hyman.
This fictional account has the feel of a real biography with a mystery intertwined in the narrative. While the writing is superb and Merrell does an excellent job highlighting an atmospheric tension based on obsession, the actual plot lacks the focus needed to create any real overwhelming suspense. The focus is more refined when looking at other literary figures or alluding to Jackson's writing.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Blue Rider Press for review purposes.