In the winter of 1964, the unfolding melodrama in North Bennington, Vermont is far from the hardscrabble existence of Rose Nemser’s childhood. Bitter at her mother for abandoning her and angry at her elder sister, Helen, who possesses a “misguided parental adoration,” Rose grows to resent the way her parents “clawed at life.” The country stands on the cusp of something new: women are finally giving voice to their right to be counted as equals at work and at home. These events, however, have yet to reach the insular academic world of novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.
As Rose writes in the first person, her memories circling the events of her year in Shirley’s house, she begins to understand time as it unfolds on a much smaller stage. Nineteen and pregnant—and a little naïve and desperate—Rose adores her lanky husband, Fred, who begins a tentative friendship with Stanley, the two literary soulmates of sorts. An archetypical man of his time, Fred readily admits he teaches for Rose: he wants to take care of her and to make a life with her, though Rose herself holds perhaps too tight to an idealized form of love.
Tethering herself to the notion that someday “a man would love her,” Rose maintains that she married Fred believing he was her best chance for happiness, giving her the excuse she needed to escape her family and her past. Like the sunspots glinting off the ice in a cold Vermont afternoon, events evolve into a literary dream as Rose and Fred ascend the porch steps and into the Hymans’ sprawling, messy, book-and-kid filled home on the hillside just off Bennington College campus.
Susan Scarf Merrell brings vividly to life an intuitive rendering of Rose’s confusion and her embryonic hope as well as Shirley’s battered dreams, this “beautiful woman in an ugly shell.” It is Shirley’s gift to understand the “absurd unloveliness of love.” With her lank, reddish hair and her pale brown spectacle rims, the imposing Shirley proves to be a mountain of a woman, both physically and metaphorically. Clearly, she loves her children and her domesticity, but she also bears—with a casual carelessness—the scars of Stanley’s frequent extramarital dalliances.
Merrell makes us feel the quiet, yearning quality of Rose’s voice, tinting it with colors in a memorable afterglow. From the moment they meet, Rose and Shirley’s friendship takes root as both realize they’ve been “abandoned and never quite loved.” Outcasts of sorts, they seem at first tied by choice and by circumstance. Amidst the nightly drunken literary soirees, Rose finds herself without self-confidence while Shirley, an intellectual titan, is arrogantly insecure, her eyes constantly lit by an extraordinary intelligence. Shirley shocks Rose by freely admitting without shame that she works for money. Wise to the ways of men, she also sanctions Stanley’s extramarital affairs, reluctantly determined to make to make the best of what she has.
This proves to be a hard lesson for Rose. The author snatches for a brief moment in time the tilt of Shirley’s glasses, Fred’s mistake in a marriage considered once free of “adolescent engrossment,” and Rose’s fairy-tale world, an innocent out of place amid the comforting book-laden tables, musty couches, Asian masks, and heady musk of tobacco and spilled bourbon. Even after the birth of her daughter, Natalie, Rose can barely take away the humiliation that will soon plummet her way. Rose’s intention is to keep Natalie safe; she doesn’t reckon on exposing her daughter to all of love’s evil and treachery.
Merrell’s tale may be character-driven, but her themes of love and betrayal in the period of the 1960s drive her story. Filled with literary allusions from Shakespeare’s villainous Iago to Jackson’s own gothic works, Merrill explores the mysteries behind what it is to love, how to be loved, and how to provide love. Cleverly tying in the disappearance of Paula Welden, a young girl who disappeared in the wooded wilderness of Glastenbury Mountain and whose whereabouts remain unsolved to this day, Merrell has Rose questioning Shirley: as Rose looks back, she remembers how strange Shirley’s voice was when she said that she’d never met the girl.
Merrell makes it easy for us to imagine and even sympathize with Rose’s plight as she is plunged into Shirley and Stanley’s various circumstances and an environment out of which she’s either too naïve or too ill-prepared to navigate her way. Frustrated by convention, Rose is often angered at the Hymans—especially at their daughter, who seems to treat Rose as chattel and a silly girl acting too far above her station. Rose struggles to restrain herself within the rules of civility; she’s often upset for Shirley and for herself. Even Shirley‘s comment to her that “You think you know what you can handle and when you can’t, the truth is almost anything is endurable,” seems to fall on deaf ears, at least for a while.
Shirley’s shifting loyalty to her writing is as justifiable as is her ultimate choice to stand by Stanley even when he’s swept away by the cool river of passion at Bennington College. In a tale of two marriages, Rose eventually learns to forgive Fred and the self-imposed demands of his mission even as she falls prey to a loneliness that has her questioning her marriage, the meaning of love, and her strange, dynamic, often complicated friendship with Shirley Jackson.