cover image American Isis: 
The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath

Carl Rollyson. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-31264-024-8

The brief life of poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) has made for titillating reading before, with much having been written on the death of her father, her lovers, her tempestuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes (1930–1998) and her eventual suicide. But Rollyson (Marilyn Monroe: The Life of the Actress) claims the time has come to redefine the “Plath myth” and recognize how she was shaped by her need for attention and admiration. To this end, Rollyson gives relatively little time to Plath’s own work. The poems are rarely referred to, whereas books she read and her correspondence are pushed up into view. The figure that emerges from Rollyson’s study is certainly compelling, and very much a woman of her moment and culture, and Rollyson has a keen eye for the contradictions that make up a life. However, he also may be conflating his past subjects excessively, with strangely frequent and superfluous references to Marilyn Monroe. The book frequently suffers from an absence of sustained argument or momentum, and the time lines at the start of each chapter don’t make up for this lack. However, in the book’s final chapter, discussing the traditions and events in Plath studies since the poet’s suicide, Rollyson’s research and engagement are apparent in ways that might have helped the rest of the book. Agent: Christina Ward. (Jan.)