Best Book of the Week!
Shirley is both an homage to Shirley Jackson, dealing with some of her own themes and preoccupations, and a novel about her. It works well on both counts. Don’t be mislead by how it is being marketed, though. It is not a thriller, even though its main character becomes obsessed with a disappearance that may be a crime.
Young, pregnant Rose Nemser and her husband Fred travel to Bennington, Vermont, in the fall of 1964. Fred is a graduate student working on his dissertation who has taken a position as teaching assistant with Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Hymans welcome the young couple and offer them a place to stay in their spare bedroom.
Rose is a shy and unconfident 19. Because of her poverty-stricken upbringing and meager education, she feels inferior to her husband and his family. Surprised at this invitation, she is delighted to stay. She is a fan of Jackson’s work and hopes to become her friend.
Soon Rose believes she has made a friend of Shirley, but Rose is naive and can’t begin to understand the demons that haunt her hostess. Shirley’s husband is a professor at Bennington who is known for having affairs with his students. Shirley, too, is jealous of male colleagues whose work has received more recognition than hers.
Rose begins delving into Shirley’s books on witchcraft and also becomes fascinated by stories of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who disappeared years ago while on a hike in the mountains. She begins having fancies about the house, similar to the ones held by Eleanor in The Haunting of Hill House.
So, the novel develops that mixture of the mundane and the off-kilter that characterizes much of Jackson’s fiction. Shirley is a deeply interesting and atmospheric novel that causes you to sympathize with the fictional Rose while feeling that you learn something about the actual Shirley Jackson. Like some other recent fiction I have read (Miss Emily comes to mind), it combines a completely made-up plot, aggravated by Rose’s fantasies, with biographical details of Shirley’s life.