Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell (Blue Rider Press, June 12th, 2014)-Shirley Jackson is one of the American greats. She wrote “The Lottery”, The Haunting of Hill House, and much more, and is considered one of the most influential authors of our time. She was also known, along with her book critic husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, to be an exuberant, gracious host, throwing parties for the literati, including names such as Ralph Ellison, in their book-filled home in Vermont, where Shirley wrote, and where Hyman was a professor at nearby Bennington College. It’s in this very real world that this fictional novel is rooted.
The story is told by Rose Nemser, the 19 year old newly pregnant wife of Fred Nemser, who has recently secured a position at Bennington. They’ve been invited to stay with Shirley and Stanley in their home, and thus begins a winter that will forever resonate with the impressionable Rose. She soon becomes enamored of Shirley, seeing in her a mother figure that she’s never really had. Rose’s childhood wasn’t a happy one, and for the first time in her life, she feels like part of a family. It’s an unconventional family, to be sure, but she’s fascinated with the mercurial Shirley and her relationship with the flamboyant Stanley, as well as the obvious love that their children have for their parents. The early days of their stay take on an almost surreal air, as Rose prepares for the arrival of her baby daughter, and tries to be a useful part of the household. Fred is frequently gone, ensconced in his duties at Bennington and kept busy with late nights musing over literature with Stanley, but Rose is steadfast, and tries hard to cultivate a place for herself as part of Shirley’s family, even as the children quietly shun her. There’s jealousy here, on Rose’s part, but to deal with that, she pretty much just pretends the children don’t exist. It really isn’t until after the birth of Rose’s daughter Natalie, that things start to take a more sinister turn. Just who keeps calling every evening during dinner and what is the truth about a college student that disappeared into the nearby woods many years ago?
Shirley reads like a heady melodrama and is heavily peppered with literary references. Rose is very self-conscious of her own shortcomings in her education, but is eager to learn and soak up an atmosphere charged with the trappings of the literary intelligentsia. She repeatedly questions Shirley about the missing girl, Paula Weldon, and Shirley claims not to have known her, although Shirley’s novel, Hangsaman, seems to contain references to the incident. Rose also wonders if Paula could have been one of Stanley’s students. The question of Stanley’s possible involvement with Paula is an intriguing one, and given his reputation for philandering, isn’t an unfounded concern, but Shirley’s not talking, except to vaguely elude to certain thoughts of revenge and “taking action.” Without giving away several important plot points, suffice it to say that things start to come to a head when Rose makes a startling discovery about her own marriage, and even some insight about herself, and her past. 1967 was an interesting time for women, and themes of domesticity and a woman’s place in marriage and society are present here, and the author manages to create a palpably tense atmosphere that builds with Rose’s revelations, and her intense desire to be seen and valued by Shirley.
I’ve long been enamored with the life of one of American literature’s most elusive and talented figures, and this fictional peek into Shirley Jackson’s life and family from the viewpoint of young Rose is eye opening and fascinating. Like Jackson, Scarf Merrell doesn’t feel the need to sensationalize the details of her story, and lets the supposedly rather mundane events speak for themselves. But again, as in Jackson’s work, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s what reveals itself in the trappings of everyday life that can sometimes be the most terrifying. This novel is a beautifully written treat for Shirley Jackson fans and an absorbing, fictional look at the illuminating, yet flawed humanity at the heart of a larger than life figure.