Review: Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill

On a bleak February day in 1963 a young American poet died by her own hand, and passed into a myth that has since imprinted itself on the hearts and minds of millions. She was and is Sylvia Plath and Your Own, Sylvia is a portrait of her life, told in poems.

With photos and an extensive list of facts and sources to round out the reading experience, Your Own, Sylvia is a great curriculum companion to Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel, a welcoming introduction for newcomers, and an unflinching valentine for the devoted.

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Sylvia Plath is an enigma that I’ve spent a (probably) unhealthy amount of time trying to understand. Like many women and teens who’ve read her work, I feel a strong sense of kinship to Plath that fuels my curiosity, and I found Stephanie Hemphill’s Your Own, Sylvia to be a welcome and engaging read which offered both interesting information and the emotion of poetry.

It surprised me how much I learned while reading Your Own, Sylvia. Many of the poems mimic poems written by Plath in style or form and were informed by the reports or writings of those who knew her. It’s clear that the poems are fictional accounts created by Hemphill, but, for me, each had a clear ring of truth and feasibility. It’s clear Hemphill spent much time researching Plath and those in her life before composing the poems that make up the novel. Some of them are better than others, that is, some felt more aesthetically pleasing, but they all contributed in an important way to the overall narrative. 

After each poem, Hemphill added factual information or a short explanation of the poem. Given the personal nature of the poetry, the information included often had a personal tone as well. I never felt that I was being force fed dry bits of factual information, rather, each fact gave additional depth and meaning to Hemphill’s poems and created a more vivid portrait of Plath.

I highly recommend Your Own, Sylvia to readers with a particular interest in Plath, as well as those who generally enjoy poetry and verse novels. Hemphill’s novel is unique in that it focuses on a real person and weaves facts into the verse novel format, offering readers something new and notable. I’m looking forward to Hemphill’s upcoming verse portrait, Hideous Love: The Story of the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. This novel, which focuses on author Mary Shelley, is scheduled for an October 2013 release.

Random House, December 2008, Paperback, ISBN:  9780375837999, 272 pgs.

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