The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath by Kimberly Knutsen follows three entwined lives told over a thirty-year period. The novel takes off with intermittent flashbacks, bits of past and present mingling to reveal a remarkable tale of hope and fear, love and lust, marriage and loneliness.
Eccentric Katie is in her mid-thirties living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After having met her husband, Wilson, during graduate school and having three babies, she stays at home reading magazines, taking baths, and lusting for her neighbor Steven, a young alcoholic. Steven is engaged to Lucy, the small and beautiful fireball who is everything Katie fears she is not. Katie’s mood is a constant pendulum of happiness and restlessness. The story slowly uncovers Katie’s troubled childhood, speckled with sexual abuse and isolation.
Wilson A. Lavender is a professor of women’s studies who also can’t seem to feel settled in his life. His hope centers around finishing his dissertation, which he has titled The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath. Convinced he is a genius and understands the plight of women, he hasn’t written anything but a cheesy opening line. He is a recovering alcoholic who eventually finds solace once again in substance abuse, thanks to pills provided by a sexy colleague named Alice Cherry, bringing him an escape from his children and his unfaithful wife. He pushes himself farther from his family and down a familiar spiral of bad decisions and lack of productivity.
One of Wilson’s main problems at home is Katie’s younger sister, January, who decides to move in with them when she finds out she’s pregnant. She looks up to Katie, mother of three and married, and fears if she continues to live alone in Luna, New Mexico, she won’t be a good mother. Like Katie, January has trouble with motivation, and she is still obsessed with her first love, the Rock Star, who left her many years ago and took all the fun from her life. January pesters Wilson constantly, and adds to the family’s relational issues. January forms a strange bond with Lucy, and they lead each other into more treacherous situations.
Set in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the novel is painted with a gray, solemn background: the frozen, miserable winters, spring that takes too long to emerge, autumn that comes too early. January and Katie grew up in Portland, Oregon, a place that haunts Katie more than it does her sister, but January was forced out of L.A. by the Rock Star. The sisters ultimately fled the West Coast for the Midwest, a place they thought would give them peace of mind and happiness, but instead leads them into more trouble. They learn that even the humility of Michigan can’t keep their ghosts away.
Each character has moments of Plathness—insanity, despair in feeling trapped. Knutsen quotes Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in one of the section’s epigraphs: “So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain?” echoing the uncertainty the characters experience deciphering good and bad, what’s real and what’s imagined.
Knutsen writes about intense subjects but imbeds her graceful prose with laugh-out-loud humor and crafts flawless dialogue. At times the sentences are so packed with information and wit that it’s hard to keep up, but the effort pays off. Knutsen weaves in and out of the present story with changing narrators and points of view, which works well in this disjointed context. The characters’ thoughts are relatable, even if selfish, and point to universal truths about trying to move on when the past is always there. A joyous exploration of pain and the price that comes with the refusal to settle, this is a stunning first novel.
October 2015, Switchgrass Books/NIU Press
$18.95, paperback, 384 pages
—Reviewed by Meredith Boe