Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one of my all-time favorite books. A semi-autobiographical novel about Plath’s descent into madness during and after her internship at a New York City magazine, this book deals with a lot of issues that are still relevant more than 50 years after its publication. It explores identity, isolation, sexual double standards, and the pressures society puts on women. These are timeless themes that have attracted generations of readers who can relate to Sylvia/Esther in different ways. But one problem readers may face after reading this book is: what to read next?
I have three reading recommendations for fans of The Bell Jar, ranging from YA to adult literature.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
What it’s about: A year after her boyfriend’s death, Jam Gallahue finds herself at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens in rural Vermont. When she arrives at her new school, she finds out she has been enrolled in “Special Topics in English,” an exclusive, supposedly life-changing class. For the duration of the semester, the five students in this class focus on the work of one author: Sylvia Plath. In addition to their studying, they are required to keep a journal. But when they write in their antique leather journals, an unexpected thing happens: They are transported to another world, which Jam and her classmates code-name Belzhar, where they are forced to confront their pasts. Over the next few months, they bond over their experiences with their journals and help each other heal.
Why Plath fans will love it: Isn’t going to a rural boarding school and exclusively reading the work of Sylvia Plath kind of the dream? Plot-wise, the novel has a few parallels to The Bell Jar, but it’s also wonderful to see these teens learn about Plath, relate to her feelings of isolation, and heal while reading her work.
This is a YA novel, and it would be the perfect read for a teen who has recently read The Bell Jar and wants to read more in the same vein. I think adults will enjoy this novel, as well. Although as an adult, I rolled my eyes at the intensity of Jam’s depression over losing a guy she knew for 41 days, I had to remind myself that that’s what being a teen is really like. Adults might have trouble relating to Jam’s feelings, but I think this book will carry them back to their teenage years if they allow it to.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
What it’s about: It’s 1990, and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan is sick of her boring, virginal self. After embarrassing herself on local TV proves to be the last straw, she decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, a top-hat-wearing badass who is always up for drinks, cigarettes, and sex. She gets a job writing scathing 600-word music reviews for a London publication and spends her nights partying, getting off with all sorts of inappropriate men, and pining after the swoon-worthy rock troubadour John Kite. However, Johanna can’t keep up this facade for long, and eventually it all comes crashing down on her, forcing her to accept who she really is and consider the value of dorky happiness over hip cynicism.
Why Plath fans will love it: This book is marketed as The Bell Jar meets Rizzo from Grease, and I think this is an apt simile. How to Build a Girl has the grittiness of Rizzo and shares themes with Plath’s novel. Like The Bell Jar, this book explores sex, identity, and the pressures young women face to be a certain way. Johanna feels that, in order to be accepted and perceived of as “cool,” she has to cultivate a certain personality. However, her brash, cynical, promiscuous alter-ego is more a product of what she believes other people want to see than who she actually is. This eventually leads to a breakdown, after which she is able to find some clarity. This explosive novel is what you would get if Esther Greenwood grew up in 1990s England rather than 1950s Massachusetts.
The Wife by Meg Wolizter
What it’s about: At Smith College in the 1950s, Joan falls in love with her creative writing professor, Joe. Although he is married with a baby, the two of them embark on an affair that eventually brings Joe to leave his wife. After years of struggling in tiny apartments, Joe’s first novel is a hit, and the couple are swept into a whirlwind of literary success. He goes on to be a major figure in American letters, winning awards right and left while Joan watches from the sidelines, her own literary ambitions silenced.
Predictably, Joe doesn’t remain faithful to Joan for long, and their outwardly perfect marriage is shadowed by his infidelity. Now, after decades of marriage, with their children grown and Joe about to win a major literary award, Joan reminisces about her relationship and finally decides to leave her husband once and for all. (Full review)
Why Plath fans will love it: There might actually be too many reasons to list, but I’ll try. First off, it’s partially set at Smith College in the 1950s! Joan could very well have been classmates with Sylvia Plath herself. In addition, The Wife features a female protagonist who is unhappy with the status quo but seemingly powerless to change it. Joan is an excellent writer, but she is warned against pursuing writing as a career. Throughout her life, Joan sees how her society is dominated by men and how art made by women isn’t taken seriously. Like The Bell Jar, this novel examines sexual double standards pertaining to the roles of wives and husbands, literature and its creators, and sexual expectations for men and women.
Have you read any other books that are reminiscent of The Bell Jar?
*I received complimentary copies of Belzhar and How to Build a Girl from the publishers for review consideration.