Shirley: A Novel, by Susan Scarf Merrell, (Blue Rider Press), 288 pages.
Susan Scarf Merrell’s Shirley is one of the big disappointments of my reading year thus far. I was delighted to receive an electronic review copy of it and hoped for a moody, edgy read. The premise of this novel is that a young academic couple, (Rose and Frank) come to stay with Shirley Jackson and her husband when Frank gets a position at Bennington College where Stanley Hyman (Shirley’s husband) also teaches.
The pre-release publicity for this novel makes it sound as if it might be one of Shirley’s best: Booklist calls it a “taut and intimate thriller”; author Susan Cheever lauds its “brilliant intersection of vivid fiction and literary myth.” I found it to be a slog through mostly mundane material populated by unlikeable characters.
The “mystery” at the novel’s heart is the disappearance of a Bennington student years ago. Young Rose begins to suspect that Shirley, who responds to her husband’s infidelities with a mix of volatility and resignation, may have killed the girl. Rose is an outsider in this foursome, having grown up poor and then marrying her graduate-student boyfriend when she was just nineteen. Given her background—a promiscuous, light-handed mother and an arsonist father—it’s not surprisingly that Rose would look at Shirley as a mother figure and role model. But Shirley is so erratic and distant and Rose is so self-absorbed that the purportedly close relationship between them seems forced: a writer’s plot device, rather than an interaction between well-painted characters.
The novel is relatively brief, so you may want to give it a go if you’re curious about the depiction of Jackson’s home life or want a period piece from the era when male professors routinely slept with female students. Maybe you’ll love it as much as Booklist and Susan Cheever did. But I have to say that I didn’t.