11. A biography: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
List Progress: 27/30
I am probably going to strike the “biography” category from my resolution list next year; I’ve come to the conclusion that there just aren’t that many individuals that I want to read an entire book devoted to, even people I find interesting. I am a fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, but at almost 500 pages, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin ends up being meticulous to a fault. Jackson is a fascinating figure, with a rich body of work and a conflicted personal life, and when Franklin gets to the meat of her story, it comes alive. But there is a lot of what feels like dead weight necessary to get there.
Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was an American author and defining figure in the horror genre. Several of her works, such as the short story “The Lottery” and the novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, are still highly regarded today, and they represent just a small portion of her stories and novels. In a part of her legacy that doesn’t often get discussed, she also wrote humorous non-fiction books about being a mother of four and is arguably the first “mommy blogger”. Her life was a balancing act: she existed as an intellectual socialite, a wife to literary critic and professor Stanley Hyman, a famous novelist and a housewife trying to have the perfect 1950’s American home. Franklin does a good job painting the multiple roles that Jackson tried to inhabit, and the negative impact the striving ultimately had on her. Franklin also includes descriptions of all of Jackson’s novels and most of her stories, so you get to follow how her body of work grew and changed throughout her life.
While the level of detail and immersion is gratifying at some points, it gets grating at others. I understand wanting to give the full context of Jackson’s pre-professional life, but it should not have taken over 200 pages to reach the publication of “The Lottery”, her breakout piece. There is also a lot of page space devoted to Stanley Hyman. It does make sense, as they were married (often unhappily) for decades, and were deeply professionally entwined as well as personally. But it does slow down the pacing even more.
The back half of the book, when it is into Jackson’s largest successes and opuses, has a lot to say and paints a rich portrait of Jackson’s life, work, and heart, and the last couple hundred pages move much faster than the first. A firmer editor could have made a shorter version of A Rather Haunted Life shine, but as is, the final product still has a lot of merit. And has given me a lot more of Jackson’s catalogue to check out.
Would I Recommend It: For dedicated Jackson fans, yes.