The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.

Lee Kravetz. Harper, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-313999-2

Journalist and psychotherapist Kravetz (Strange Contagion) makes an engrossing fiction debut with an account of Sylvia Plath and her circle of confessional poets. Estee, a master curator at a struggling auction house in present-day Boston, is nearing retirement when she is handed what proves to be an authentic, handwritten draft of The Bell Jar. Kravetz then takes readers back to the 1950s, where a fictional female writer using the pseudonym Boston Rhodes enrolls in Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop along with Plath, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, and others. Rhodes, obsessively competitive, resorts to blackmail, theft, and plagiarism to eclipse Sylvia, her chief rival. A third narrative comes from Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, the young psychiatry resident at the McLean Hospital who treated Plath for depression and remained the poet’s friend and confidante but was unable to prevent her eventual suicide. The author creates a taut air of tension to the auction house, where the restrained Estee feels disarmed by a young, media-savvy colleague, and delves deeply into the guilt carried by the poets who studied and competed with Plath, including Rhodes, and by the regretful Barnhouse, whose story traces the mental institution’s slow evolution toward more humane, enlightened therapeutic practices. Kravetz brings both authority and empathy to his depictions of mental illness. He also reveals himself to be a fine novelist. (Mar.)
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