Book Review: Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson

Posted March 6, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 17 Comments

Book Review: Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson
Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson
Published by Scribner on Feb. 2013
Pages: 369
Genres: Biography, Non-Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

Sylvia Plath is a literary icon known for her confessional poetry, her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, her tumultuous relationship with her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. In this new biography of the poet, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her death, Andrew Wilson tells the story of Sylvia Plath’s early life.

Before she met Ted at the age of 23, Plath led a complex, creative life full of the highest highs and lowest lows. Her father died when she was eight, and she had a complicated relationship with her mother. Intensely bright (she had an IQ of 160) and fiercely ambitious, she faced mental illness and instability from an early age. She knew the pain of rejection and the thrill of acceptance from frequently submitting her stories and poems to national magazines.

This biography centers upon what Wilson considers to be the main obstacles that shaped Plath’s life, mind, and writing:

  • Her father’s death: Lacking a father figure, Sylvia sought to fill his void with a constant stream of men. However, she had a habit of projecting her fantasies onto the men she dated, creating high hopes and visions of her beaus that had little bearing on the reality of their personalities.
  • Her mother’s lack of money: Aurelia Plath raised Sylvia and her brother Warren on a single salary, and money was often tight. Sylvia was frustrated by the way her financial situation limited her; instead of focusing on her classes and her writing during college, she was under constant financial strain and had to work to aid her mother.
  • The hypocrisy of society regarding gender roles: Coming of age in the 1940s and ’50s, Plath was subject to a sexual double standard. Although it was socially acceptable for men to have sexual relations, women were expected to be chaste until marriage. Women of Plath’s generation were also expected to marry right out of college, crank out babies, and become homemakers. Sylvia, on the other hand, wanted more than a life of caring for children; she wanted to work and create and travel the world. She felt angered by the double standard and stifled by the expectations.

Mad Girl’s Love Song seems to be well researched. Wilson draws his information from Plath’s diaries, exclusive interviews with friends and lovers, letters to and from people who knew her well, and previously unavailable archives. He also colors the facts with quotes from her poetry and episodes from her stories, essays, and novel.

This is a fascinating look at Sylvia Plath’s early life, but it doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of her. She is portrayed as manic, manipulative, narcissistic, and blind to the needs of others. She is described as having had a fractured, unstable personality and an identity that was “about as sturdy as a soap bubble.” It definitely plays up the mental illness she constantly battled, from her manic highs to her depressive lows.

Although this book made it hard for me to really like the character of Sylvia Plath, it was a very interesting read about a complex woman, and I certainly learned a lot about the her life, her struggles, and the factors that shaped her writing. I would highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in Plath’s life and want to learn more about the iconic writer.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

  • I had just tweeted about needing to read a biography about an American relevant character when your post showed up. I haven’t read The Bell Jar yet, but I’m dying to. This sounds like the perfect counterpart to TBJ’s first reading. Thank you!

    • You neeeed to read The Bell Jar! I think you’d love it. This bio would definitely be interesting to read after TBJ; it was really interesting to read about how closely the novel mirrored Plath’s life, which events really happened (or didn’t), and the people some of the characters were based on.

  • I totally get what you mean about Sylvia not being portrayed as the most likeable character, but I felt that Wilson deftly examined all the facets of her complex personality, and he made a fair judgement. There were likeable and less likeable parts of her, but she was amazing and fascinating. I like your review though. 🙂

    • I think you’re right that although Wilson’s portrayal of Syvlia isn’t the most flattering, it’s a fair assessment based on the evidence. She was a brilliant writer, but that doesn’t mean she was all roses; in fact, I’m sure her genius and personal instability were linked. Will you be reviewing this soon?

      • I will – but I’m not sure how to approach it yet. It’s such a big book in more ways than one and there is potentially so much to talk about. I should review it in the next week or so I think. Also looking forward to hearing more people’s thoughts about it, to see if anyone really loved/really hated it and why.

  • One of these days I am going to read The Bell Jar (it’s on every list I have) and THEN I might have to read this one!

  • I’m looking forward to reading this. Great review.

    • Thanks! I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts if you do read it.

  • therelentlessreader

    I’ve had The Bell Jar checked out of the library more than once and I’ve yet to read it. I really need to get to it. I’d really like to read this one too. I’m fascinated by literary folks

    • Get to it! The Bell Jar is fantastic, and this bio was really fascinating. Literary folks are definitely interesting characters!

  • Seems like many writers have demons, and maybe these demons drive their writing. As a writer, I have to hope they’re not required!
    I nominated you for the Liebster award! If you don’t accept awards, no problem–I still think your blog is nifty. If you do, click on this post for the rules.

    • I’m sure demons aren’t required!

      Aww, thank you! I don’t post awards on my blog anymore, but I’m honored by the nomination 🙂

  • I’ll have to read this — I became interested in knowing more about her after seeing a movie about her life.

    • Was it the movie with Gwenyth Paltrow? So sad 🙁

      • Yes, that’s the one. It was very sad.