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Review: ‘Pain, Parties, and Work’ by Elizabeth Winder

Review: ‘Pain, Parties, and Work’ by Elizabeth Winder post image

Title: Pain, Parties, and Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953
Author: Elizabeth Winder
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Harper
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour
Rating: ★★★★☆

Review: In May of 1953, Sylvia Plath, then a 21-year-old junior at Smith College, arrived in New York City for a one-month assignment as a guest editor for the college issue of Mademoiselle. Plath, along with the 19 other women selected for these prestigious posts, would spend 26 sweltering, frenetic, life-changing days working on the magazine and learning how complicated the world of the 1950s could be for smart, ambitious women.

Pain, Parties, and Work is a biography of a moment, an exploration of the 26-day period that led to the first of Plath’s several breakdowns and suicide attempts. In the book, author Elizabeth Winder interviews many of the women Plath served with to gain and understanding of what Plath was like as a young woman, before she became the tortured, talented, and tragic poet we remember her as today.

I was drawn to read Pain, Parties, and Work after I learned that Plath’s time at Mademoiselle was the inspiration for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, a book I read for the first time almost exactly two years ago. I really connected with the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and her struggle to feel like she fit. Plus, I didn’t know a lot about Plath other than the way her life ended and I was curious about what she was like as a young woman.

At the beginning of the book, I was a little skeptical that Winder was going to be able to draw many conclusions about Plath’s life based on a month-long experience. Her Mademoiselle stint seemed, at first, to be mostly about the second to words of the books title — parties and work. Plath was a glamorous young woman who loved fashion and makeup and food and her many boyfriends. She seemed, at times, rather frivolous and entirely carefree.

But as the book continued, I began to see what Winder learned through her interviews with the other guest editors — life in the 1950s was difficult for talented women. They received mixed signals about what they should want, even more than I think we get today. And it was difficult for Plath, trying to blend her sense of adventure and fun with her strong work ethic and perfectionism all within the strict ideals of what women were supposed to be, trying to reconcile “Medea with Emily Post.”

But Plath was not the only guest editor who struggled to survive this New York experience; the other women also had to work hard at the “self-policing, the grueling effort it took to make all that varnish seem like second nature.” While it’s sad to admit, I think women today still do this — put on a good face to others while privately struggling to meet the expectations that society creates. The expectations are different now than they were in 1953, but no less difficult to manage.

Pain, Parties, and Work is really a wonderful little book. It’s a biography of Sylvia Plath, but it’s also a look at 1950s womanhood and a portrait of life in New York City at this time. Winder packs a lot into the story, all while presenting a very specific but convincing exploration of a time that upended Sylvia Plath’s life and influenced her decisions for years to come.

tlc logoOther Tour Stops: Savvy Verse & Wit |  50 Books Project | Veronica M.D | Unabridged Chick | The Road to Here | nomadreader | Man of La Book | The Blog of Lit Wits | Necromancy Never Pays | Luxury Reading | (May 7th) Tiffany’s Bookshelf | (May 8) Book Hooked Blog | (May 9) Peppermint PhD | (May 13) A Bookish Affair | (May 14) missris | (May 15) guiltless reading | (May 16) The Scarlet Letter |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jeanne May 6, 2013, 9:20 am

    It seems to me that talented women–anyone who stuck out–had an even harder time in the 1950’s. I know my mother did. I’ve told this story before, I think–my mom got to Madison, WI to start grad school and was told she couldn’t have her fellowship because she’d gotten married in between being accepted and showing up for the job. “You’ll just have a baby and drop out” the head of the program told her. There was no recourse, so she had me. Although she never entirely dropped out. She finally got her PhD when I was in high school.

    • Kim May 6, 2013, 9:31 am

      Yes, that’s exactly the tension these women were facing. They were in New York as part of this prestigious opportunity for their careers, but every message they were getting said “Go home, get married, have kids.” I can’t even begin to imagine how grating that must have been on their spirits.

      I don’t think I’ve heard that story about your mother before, or maybe I’m just being forgetful. But how awful for her, and how wonderful that she was so tenacious to keep going after what she wanted anyway.

  • Andi @ Estella's Revenge May 6, 2013, 12:38 pm

    I keep seeing this one pop up and I’m interested to see how I like it. I’m always interested in this time period and the struggles of women wading through it. Plath is just icing.

    • Kim May 8, 2013, 8:12 pm

      I feel like I don’t know very much about women in the 1950s, other than the stereotype of 1950s housewife. But obviously it was a lot more complicated than that.

  • jennygirl May 6, 2013, 1:20 pm

    The cover is awesome but this time period has always interested me. It’s right before everything started to change. Sounds like an interesting read.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) May 6, 2013, 1:33 pm

    This sounds good to me. I may have to pick it up for my mother.

  • Rebecca @ Love at First Book May 6, 2013, 2:19 pm

    I really like the topic of this book, with kind of an inside look into a magazine and women in the 50’s! I’ll have to add it to my list!

  • Elizabeth May 6, 2013, 7:15 pm

    Love the review! At some point in my writing process, I realized that the book wasn’t just a portrait of Plath, but a portrait of educated girls in the fifties. Such a fascinating, heartbreaking moment in history. Thanks so much for reading!

    • Kim May 8, 2013, 8:13 pm

      That’s the realization I came to as I was reading — the book really pulls out in scope as it progresses. I appreciated that aspect a lot and really enjoyed reading it!

  • Heather J @ TLC Book Tours May 10, 2013, 2:25 pm

    I can only imagine how difficult life was for smart women in the 1950s, though it seems this book would give me a glimpse of it.

    Thanks for being on the tour Kim. I’m featuring your review on TLC’s Facebook page today.

    • Kim May 12, 2013, 9:45 pm

      You know, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it seems like the tension between work and family was even more stark then, so it was difficult to do both successfully. And there wasn’t much real support for women who wanted to work after they finished college either.

  • Patti Smith May 22, 2013, 12:59 pm

    “…life in the 1950s was difficult for talented women. They received mixed signals about what they should want, even more than I think we get today. And it was difficult for Plath, trying to blend her sense of adventure and fun with her strong work ethic and perfectionism all within the strict ideals of what women were supposed to be, trying to reconcile “Medea with Emily Post.”
    The frivolity at the beginning almost turned me off, but then I got past that and realized what a message Winder had created with this little book. Yes, it’s about Sylvia Plath, but like you said above, it is also about so much more than just that. Enjoyed your review! 🙂

    • Kim May 22, 2013, 8:05 pm

      I felt the same way at the beginning. It seemed like the book was going to be shallow (at least in the topics it was covering). I was really pleased that it ended up being more than that.

  • Jennifer May 31, 2013, 8:21 pm

    I have to admit that I’m fascinated by Sylvia Plath’s life. I love her dark poetry and teaching it this year was really fun. I had several student who really got into her dark world of words. I’m think I’ll have to pick this up and even recommend it to certain students who are as interested in the woman behind the words as I am.

    • Kim June 2, 2013, 10:43 am

      I think this could be a great companion text for students studying Sylvia Plath. It gives a lot of insight into her and a different idea of the Plath we tend to know from her poetry.