Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell


Left or right’s no matter…just the fact of turning

As someone who’s mildly obsessed with the work of Shirley Jackson, I was a bit skeptical when I found out about this novel.  Told from the perspective of a house guest of Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, the novel takes place in 1964 and imagines what life might have been like inside the Hyman household.  But when I finished the first chapter, I suspected that this biographical novelization would be a sensitive and highly-charged delicacy for those who deeply savor Jackson’s literature.  And it is.

When Fred Nemser takes a graduate assistant position with Stanley Hyman at Bennington College, he and his young wife Rose are invited to live inside the eclectic and sprawling home of Stanley and Shirley as temporary residents.  Young, vulnerable and lonely in a new city, Rose vows to make a good impression on the mysterious and eccentric family.  But Shirley Jackson was known to be a rather cold and reclusive woman, and Rose’s attempts to please Shirley slowly spiral into an obsession with her work, her life, and her thoughts.

Rose is equally fascinated and horrified by the Hymans’ infamous and volatile relationship, and she can’t help but compare the fate of her own marriage to that of Shirley and Stanley.  And while Shirley warns Rose that a writer’s responsibilities are “the devil’s work,” she often romanticizes the unconventional lifestyle that Shirley leads.  When she’s not chain-smoking and fretting over a story, she’s erratically tending to the needs of her children, husband, and multitude of guests that wander in and out of the Hyman house.  The Hymans are dramatic, non-traditional and often dysfunctional, and to Rose, this lifestyle is new and exciting.

But as Rose quietly observes this quirky and highly-emotional family, she becomes slightly suspicious of Shirley’s mental state, and her own imagination fills in the many blanks.  But the imagination can be powerfully deceptive, and Rose cannot resist her preoccupation with Shirley’s local reputation as a woman of witchcraft and sorcery.  As Rose’s interest in Shirley develops into obsession, she fixates on one of Jackson’s lesser-known novels, Hangsaman.  Based on the real-life 1946 disappearance of a Bennington college student, Rose cannot help but see comparisons in herself and the missing young girl.

As she delves further and further into the case, Rose’s mental state liquifies and boils around the possibility of Shirley’s involvement in the disappearance.  She doesn’t seem to believe that Shirley is actually capable of anything truly evil, but she knows how powerful and compelling an emotion like love can be.  She says, “loving someone, no matter how deeply, gives just one window into who that other is.”

Rose’s window into Shirley’s mind and heart may be small and clouded, but she clings to it like a life force.  With Shirley, Susan Scarf Merrell presents the tender and turbulent coming-of-age of a woman desperate to find purpose, meaning, and a legacy.  There is nothing so belittling as the notion of unimportance, and for Rose, it’s easier to be a part of someone else’s legacy than to create her own.  Because after all, legacies are built not just on momentous events, but also through the everyday minutia of life – a balance that Rose has not yet mastered. For Shirley, every detail and scrap of minutia is savored and analyzed to extrapolate a story, but as Rose quickly learns in her year with the Hymans, not every story is meant to be pursued, and not every love is lovely: “that was Jackson’s gift: to understand the absurd unloveliness of love.” And also, to empower readers with their own interpretations of the gray areas of love, fear, wonder, commitment and trust.

If you’re a Shirley Jackson enthusiast, this novel is certainly a must-read.  But fans of general fiction and character-driven plots will find unmistakeably unique insights into the life and mind of one of America’s greatest literary figures.  Tender, respectful and compelling, Merrell’s novel is a wondrously rich and evocative imagining.   We may never solve the many mysteries of Shirley Jackson, but decades later we’re still curious and wondering – and that is what defines a truly superb literary legacy.

Shirley_SusanScarfMerrell ★★★★½
: A Novel
By Susan Scarf Merrell
Blue Rider Press
288 Pages
ISBN 9780399166457

About Karli Cude

Karli Cude, previous moderator of Hooked Bookworm, is an avid reader and former bookseller. She graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in English Literature in 2010 and completed a Master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences in 2013.