Review of “Shirley: A Novel” by Susan Scarf Merrell

Mariah Gese


Shirley: A Novel will be released by Blue Rider Press on June 12th for $25.95.


Shirley Jackson became a household name with her popular works The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House, horror classics that paved the way for modern greats like Stephen King. Jackson penned psychological thrillers and sinister commentaries on small town American life, herself something of a recluse with few interviews to explain her mysterious persona. Susan Scarf Merrell’s upcoming book Shirley: A Novel attempts to delve into her enigmatic personal life in an homage woven around a character study of Jackson.

The story takes place in bucolic Bennington, Vermont in 1964, where Jackson lived with husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic. In Merrell’s novel, Jackson and Hyman have an intellectual marriage, where an uncanny codependence exists despite infidelity and emotional abuse. This is witnessed by Rose and Fred Nemser, a fictional newly wedded couple staying with the family for a year while Fred teaches under Hyman at Bennington College. In a series of domestic yet nightmarish encounters, Rose becomes a disciple of Shirley’s, yearning to understand her sometimes mystical and downright terrifying mind. The relationship devolves into a strange, mother-daughter friendship; when Fred follows in Stanley’s cheating footsteps, the women bond further but this time in a twisted hatred over their limited options. Shirley, a relatively liberated housewife, contrasts with repressed child-bride Rose to infuse the story with the frustrated feminism of the 1950s.

Though not a psychological thriller like Jackson’s own work, Shirley guesses at the environment that produced such horror classics. As narrator Rose develops more involved neuroses about Shirley, the story itself drips with the anxiety and secrecy that drove Jackson to write. Rose becomes convinced that Shirley years ago killed one of Stanley’s amorous students, Paula Welden, who disappeared into the Vermont wilderness and has never been found. Rose finds herself drawn to the place Welden vanished, jealous of the Hyman children, and suspicious of Stanley’s intentions towards her. When she becomes convinced Shirley murdered Welden, Rose is banished from the house, forced to reconcile her mixed feelings towards her new baby and her hatred for her lecherous husband. The Nemsers eventually reconcile their marriage, and ten years later undertake a research project on the Hyman-Jackson household. Both search for evidence that they mattered to the infamous couple, but realize success lies in forging a path for themselves with mutual respect and love.

The Nemsers are clearly meant to mirror the Hymans in their fall from naiveté, at the climax of the story matching mistrust and cruelty with the older couple.  Rose pays surprisingly little attention to their new baby at this point, a focus that drove much of the novel’s first half yet peters out thematically after Fred’s cheating. Although Rose and Fred’s struggle to achieve a mature marriage drives most of the exposition, the story also questions the nature of love and its manifestations. Jackson’s peculiar brand of love asserts itself as seductive and intimidating intellectualism, mixed with an indifference that sets Rose against the Hyman children. This also characterizes Jackson’s marriage with blasé and roguish Hyman, resulting in their crippling codependence and flirty antagonism. Their household comes off as both reliable and treacherous.

Merrell reveals that being a female writer in the 1950s meant anxiety— an unstable lifestyle, fear over the reception of one’s writing, repression of the true self in anything outside of prose. Shirley remains enigmatic: possibly criminal, possibly neurotic, loved fiercely by the people she most abuses. Her talent opposes Rose’s domesticity, but results in the same crippling boredom and self-deprecation.

Despite Merrell’s good intentions, the novel essentially fails to portray Shirley Jackson’s inner life. Shirley remains a distant matriarch, betrayed by the weak prose style and Rose’s immature narration. While Rose and Fred are necessary for the premise of the novel, serving as the lens through which Merrell explores the Jackson’s marriage, Rose’s preoccupation with money drives the story away from Jackson and any revelations concerning her enigmatic life. Rose herself fails to mirror Jackson or divulge the necessarily imaginative and secret inner life of a 1950s budding female intellectual. The novel loses a sense of driving plot, and becomes simply a domestic tableau of Jackson and Hyman’s tumultuous marriage and Jackson’s early death. The causes of both are glossed over, in the pursuit of Rose’s anxieties.

Merrell succeeds in revealing but not developing the gender inequality of the 1950s, and the resulting marital problems that likely plagued Shirley Jackson among many other women. Although Merrell simplifies the female experience of that generation, her attempt at a character study of Shirley Jackson is the most successful aspect of the novel. Truthfully, just as much insight about Shirley Jackson could be ascertained by reading her work.