Book Review: SHIRLEY: A NOVEL by Susan Scarf Merrell

Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Released: June 12, 2014
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Rating: ★★¾

Two imposing literary figures are at the center of this captivating novel: the celebrated Shirley Jackson, best known for her short story “The Lottery,” and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and professor at Bennington College. When a young graduate student and his pregnant wife – Fred and Rose Nemser – move into Shirley and Stanley’s home in the fall of 1964, they are quickly cast under the magnetic spell of their brilliant and proudly unconventional hosts.

While Fred becomes preoccupied with his teaching schedule, Rose forms an unlikely, turbulent friendship with the troubled and unpredictable Shirley. Fascinated by the Hymans’ volatile marriage and inexplicably drawn to the darkly enigmatic author, Rose nonetheless senses something amiss – something to do with nightly unanswered phone calls and inscrutable accounts of a long-missing female student. Chillingly atmospheric and evocative of Jackson’s own classic stories, Shirley is an elegant thriller with one of America’s greatest horror writers at its heart.

SHIRLEY was a strange novel, probably because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Billed as a psychological thriller, this book ended up being more of a fictionalized biography of author Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House) told from the point of view of Rose Nemser. Young Rose and Fred Nemser are the house guests of Shirley and her husband Prof. Stanley Hymam beginning in the fall of 1964. Fred works for Stanley at Bennington College in Vermont, while Rose spends time with Shirley in the Hymans’ weird and wonderful home.

Rose is a naive 19-year old who quickly falls under Shirley’s spell. Rose becomes a part of the Hymans’ literary circle, though she struggles to fit in. As the months pass, the women form a close friendship, and Rose learns that all is not as it seems with Shirley and Stanley. The disappearance of a coed several years earlier makes Rose suspicious of her hosts, even though they claim not to have known her.

This book presented a compelling look at Shirley Jackson’s troubled personal life and how she was treated by townspeople and the literary world at the time. The part that fell flat for me was the mystery surrounding the missing student. Unfortunately, it didn’t amount to much. There was no jaw-dropping revelation that brought all the pieces together. The ending left me feeling ambivalent. I also thought that some scenes dragged on too long or were confusing, and I would lose interest. Though this book didn’t grab me, it did pique my interest in Shirley Jackson’s work.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.