This book was provided to me by Penguin Group and Blue Rider Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell
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. (via Goodreads)
I was hesitant to request this book because, aside from “chilling” and “thriller” being used in its description, it sounds very much like a work of literary fiction. To be clear, I define “literary” as heavy on characterization and the feel of setting (rather than details), but light on plot. There is nothing wrong with literary fiction, but I find that it is generally not for me. There are exceptions. By my definition, Shirley Jackson’s works are pretty much literary. They are atmospheric and sustained by their characters. I enjoy reading Shirley Jackson very much, so I took a chance on Merrell’s Shirley. Unfortunately, my initial impression was the correct one.
Rose Nemser is a character somewhat like Jackson’s Eleanor Vance (from The Haunting of Hill House). She’s a young woman who, despite her efforts to be “free,” is still shackled to her past. Rose is terribly insecure and, if I were being unkind, clueless . As our first person POV character, being in her head is somewhat wince-worthy as she tries so hard to be Shirley Jackson’s friend.
I tried to find some poignancy in the fact that the book is set in the last year of Jackson’s life, or some major plot point in the recurring subject of the missing girl, but Rose is a needy character. This book is really just about *her* and how muddled her young life is for a period of time. Sometimes, it felt like Susan Scarf Merrell was trying to out-Shirley-Jackson Shirley Jackson. In retrospect, I can see that maybe that’s less a fault and more of a reflection of Rose and her attempts to be relevant.
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Publication date: June 12th 2014
Why did I choose to read this book? Fan of Shirley Jackson