The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. Lee Kravetz. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2022.
Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar, was lauded for her genius as a poet. She came of age in the late 1950s, when many women were neatly packaged in button-down cardigans and camel hair coats and expected to create the perfect home for their husbands. Under this facade lay buried anguish. Plath had a desperate desire to write and a poorly treated serious mental health condition. At 30 years old, she put her head in the oven and turned on the gas, sealing off the kitchen with towels while her two small children slept upstairs, bread and milk by their beds.
Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P, is a beautifully written fictional account of her life and the literary world of confessional poetry. Kravetz masterfully interweaves three voices – Estee, Boston Rhodes, and Dr. Ruth Barnhouse – imbuing each with nuance and depth: Estee is a master curator who deals with Plath’s Bell Jar notebooks found in a dusty attic and has her own secret to reveal. Rhodes is a fictional character based loosely on poet Anne Sexton, who narrates parts of the story through letters written to her professor, Robert Lowell, the leader of a seminal workshop of confessional poets that Plath also attended. And Ruth Barnhouse was, in real life, the only psychiatrist who really listened to Plath and gave her back to herself, even if only for a short time. Their storylines are all intricately and skillfully puzzled together and connected by common threads. They all had loved ones that they couldn’t save.
Plath was an extraordinary woman, like Lowell, considered “a mad genius.” Ultimately, Plath was also an ordinary woman, who lost her father at an early age and felt her happiness faded with his death. She probably suffered from a form of bipolar disorder. She tells Barnhouse that she didn’t die from an overdose of pills during an early suicide attempt because “the life force was so strong in me, it counter-acted the pills.” Ultimately, that life force was drained out of her because she had no safe person or place to turn to. Kravetz’s novel poses the question, how do we save those we love?
Through Rhodes, the literary world is laid bare in all its petty jealousy and competition for the few coveted awards. The setting for much of this was Lowell’s seminal workshop in Boston, a crucible of the confessional school of poetry that encouraged outpourings about taboo subjects such as abortion, but offered no sanctuary where the poets could hold each other’s pain. Rhodes, Plath and other poets meet here and vie for top spots in “The Ring,” the elite group that meets at a fancy hotel after the workshop. Plath is a threat to Rhodes, and she reacts like a venomous spider. When Rhodes hears Plath read her poetry, she feels “…the red rage building in me.” As the novel unfolds, we see the devious ways that Rhodes tries to harm Plath: “I’d cast the poison dye.”
Rhode’s character feels, at times, over the top, but our society is over the top with its focus on human “doing” rather than human “being.” Despite the intense rivalry in the novel, perpetrated mostly by Rhodes, both women are connected by their fierce drive to write and their love of language. Plath and Rhodes courageously entered the underworld (both were obsessed by death and violence). Rhodes attempts suicide with her young daughter upstairs. They had no one to guide them back to health. The novel unmasks this dilemma of artists: They must have open hearts to the world to create magical and powerful art, but to have an open heart is also to let in pain and suffering.
I found Dr. Barnhouse to be the most sympathetic character in the novel. She has her own deep pain, revealed toward the end. Perhaps because of her past, she cares deeply about her patients and tries what were then considered radical techniques to help them. Kravetz gives us a window into mental health treatment at the time, focused on medication, now-debunked insulin treatments that put patients in a coma, and crude, high-dose forms of electroconvulsive therapy then in use (“The violence rages through her and mollifies into small melodic spasms”). Barnhouse, in contrast, insists to her colleagues that the patients need to be listened to deeply and go on outings. She breaks rank and takes a group of women to help a nearby beekeeper – a “Norseman,” a great character who plays a cameo role – because she believes that engaging in nature would lift their spirits. It does help the women. In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book, bees cover and sting Sylvia’s arms, yet she feels no pain.
In another disturbing scene, one of Barnhouse’s patients escapes and is found dead. Kravetz’s prose shines: “The dam, one of many that chokes the waterway, was a thick tangle of branches…torn clothes, and the lifeless moon-colored face of Miss Drake.”
Barnhouse feels she has failed, yet she has helped so many. Lowell, also a patient at McClean’s, visits Plath and tells her, “The more you write the less it hurts.” Kravetz, again, exposes the dilemma of the writer who needs to write to live. To be so vulnerable with an open heart is to also court suffering.
When Sylvia moves to England with her handsome, brilliant, Yorkshire poet husband, their marriage is still blissful. But soon afterward he demeans confessional poetry (“…it’s so middle-brow”). He is also unfaithful and, according to letters from Plath unearthed in real life in 2017, verbally and physically abusive. She writes letters to her beloved Barnhouse, at first filled with the pleasantries of married life, but reading between the lines Barnhouse realizes Plath is again sinking into despair. Perhaps this is what the title refers to as “The last confessions.”
At the end of her life Plath writes The Bell Jar under a pen name. It was not well received in England, but when published after her suicide and under her true name, the book becomes a bestseller. The image of the bell jar is two-fold: an image of being suffocated under glass, unable to breathe. Kravetz also shows the bell jar as magical. When Barnhouse takes a group of women to a department store, Plath is mesmerized by “lavish holiday displays” and particularly by “an expansive exhibition of manger dioramas, each one housed underneath tiny bell jars.” We cannot look at her life and work without swimming in her magical language and light.
Though Estee’s narration is perhaps the least developed, she is the glue that holds the mystery of the book together. The notebooks found in an attic are at the center of the novel. They appear to be a first draft of The Bell Jar, in which a college student and aspiring poet wins a coveted magazine internship but becomes increasingly despondent, trying repeatedly to commit suicide. How did the notebooks get there? What will happen to them? Her story is suspenseful. She also befriends Nicholas, a Plath scholar who helps determine if the notebooks truly belong to Plath. Through their connection to the notebooks, revealed at the end, the reader is also confronted with objects and their meaning and who really owns them. As Nicholas says, “Some things aren’t meant to belong to anybody.”
Estee, who has lived a quiet, solitary life as a curator, remarks at the end that “people need people.” Maybe that is one of the main takeaways of the book. Had Plath been surrounded by a loving community and gotten the help she needed for her mental illness, perhaps she would still be here, along with so many others who need to be held, loved, and cradled back to life.