Susan Scarf Merrell’s latest novel takes place in the 1960s world where a young couple moves into the home of renowned author Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman. SHIRLEY reads like a taut Jackson suspense piece. Shirley seems to be in control of her house, as well as be able to read other’s minds. Each chapter brings more and more depth to the characters as the story begins to progress toward the climax.
Fred and Rose Nemser are a young, ambitious couple who need help when moving into a small university town. Fred receives a job at the university, and Rose is pregnant. The Hyman family, Stanley and Shirley, take them into their house --- which, to Rose, appears to be full of life. The small town believes Shirley to have been responsible for the disappearance of a young girl from the college. Their suspicions are founded on the idea that Shirley is dark and ugly, so she must be a witch. Stanley is sleeping with his students in order to supplement for his unattractive and dark wife.
"SHIRLEY is a deep and well-thought-out novel that truly explores the characters inside and out. Merrell does an excellent job at being poignant with the way she delivers the backstory of the characters."
Rose is unabated in her quest to seek Shirley’s friendship, spending a majority of her time around Shirley and brushing off the story of the missing girl. She finds that she has an underlying bond with Shirley that extends back to their past. Rose longs to be as smart and creative as Shirley, believing it is her chance at a second life.
The story than centers on the two marriages within the household as Shirley is seen burying the scars she hides from Stanley’s infidelity. Stanley is also affected by Shirley in such a way that he needs her in his life, despite the desire to cheat. They have a sort of unspoken compromise. Rose and Fred are both naive and new to their situation. Rose is not concerned about the young girls at the college until spending time with Shirley. With Shirley around --- and somehow capable of reading people’s thoughts --- Rose soon learns of the ways in which the devil lurks around each corner.
SHIRLEY is a deep and well-thought-out novel that truly explores the characters inside and out. Merrell does an excellent job at being poignant with the way she delivers the backstory of the characters. The life she breathes into Rose and Shirley allows readers to feel every word and moment between them. They become pillars of sympathy as strong feminist characters within the trapped world of the ’60s culture.
The novel opens the mind to the idea that there is beauty and intelligence behind the things that may appear ugly to us. The fact is that Shirley Jackson was a beacon for young girls to gravitate toward. She did not possess the ideal good looks to which people aspire. Instead, she was herself and beyond that. She wrote the things she knew in her head and made no room for anyone else’s opinions. SHIRLEY will linger in my thoughts for some time as I begin to process the brilliance that Shirley Jackson was and --- through her lasting literature --- still is.
Reviewed by Robert Doyle on June 27, 2014