Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz- Gail Crowther

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are icons for those of us who grew up in the “second wave” feminist movement. I always knew who they were, their perceived impact on women’s literature and that they committed suicide. I read “The Bell Jar” in 1977. But this is a must-read book for so many reasons beyond what you think you know about Plath and Sexton. It is a beautifully drawn biography that puts in context their lives and their work. It’s painful to read because both of them endured a lot of pain. But it reminds us that they were not their illness but whole women who had parents, husbands, in-laws, children, recipes, households, and who worked outside the home (in studies, at tables, attending workshops and conferences, at public readings and radio broadcasts, teaching). This was, of course, in the fifties and sixties when most middle-class women or higher-class women worked as housewives and mothers. Crowther organizes the book starting with an overview of how Plath and Sexton met and generally how their lives were similar, then separates each chapter by topic (“mental health” “writing”), addressing them as individuals. While there are similarities in their lives and they were only four years apart in age, they are very different personalities: Plath was an organized, good student, perfectionist whose gifts were recognized when she was quite young. Sexton a scattered bon vivant who was considered a poor student and who came to writing seriously after she developed serious postpartum depression. Each experienced periods of severe illness and hospitalization. Each received some treatment we would recognize as normal and familiar and other treatments that horrify. The research is impeccable, the writing beautiful. You need not know who the subjects are to love this book because it is a thoughtful, compassionate, and interesting read. It’s about fascinating people who did not quite fit into their era and so made waves. Big waves with the advent of “Confessional Poetry” and writing on taboo subjects about what it means to be female. I don’t know what I believe about Crowther’s observations about what might have been different for Plath and Sexton if they had been born and grown up after feminism took hold again. I can’t say whether her occasional suggestions that today’s treatment of mental health issues would have been more effective for them. I can say that Crowther’s views are drawn from significant knowledge of her subjects and the era and are reasonable food for thought, not– “out there.” I’ve not read poetry seriously for over forty years, but my next step is to purchase both women’s works and spend more time with them. This book is that good.

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