When two boorish brothers walk into a struggling Boston auction house, they bring with them a mystery that will raise fundamental questions about art and ownership. That’s because the small metal box Elton and Jay Jay Dyce present to master curator Estee, a specialist in rare books, holds three notebooks, which together appear to contain the handwritten rough draft of Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, “The Bell Jar.” As posterity and commerce each make their claim on the notebooks, Estee will find herself investigating their provenance and planning for their future, introducing the three interwoven timelines of “The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.,” journalist and psychotherapist Lee Kravetz’s debut novel and an intricately plotted literary thriller.
The Dyce brothers, hosts of a house-flipping reality television show, have no awareness of the iconic poet Plath and care only for their find’s monetary value, but Estee, who is about to retire, sees in the books a last great project. Her investigation into how these notebooks came to be in the attic of a “flipped” house kickstarts her story, which takes place in conveniently pre-pandemic 2019. As she assumes her role in the notebooks’ fate, Estee takes a vaguely melancholy pride in her own hard-earned skills. In addition to her care for rare books, for example, she has learned how to deftly handle clients like the Dyces as well as her superficial trend-chasing boss. She has also come to accept the limitations of her job. “I know what it’s like caring for something beautiful and fragile,” she says at one point, having made clear that she is not talking only about books.
Estee’s story is intercut by two earlier narratives. In one, beginning in 1958, a poet using the pseudonym Boston Rhodes (apparently modeled on Plath’s real-life friend and rival Anne Sexton) finds herself both intrigued and threatened when Plath joins the clique-y poetry seminar run by Robert Lowell, endangering Rhodes’s status as queen bee. The remaining story line swings back to 1953, when Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, a fictionalized version of Plath’s real McLean Hospital psychiatrist, begins treating the young poet for the debilitating depression that has left her unable to write, using increasingly unconventional methods. All three of these women will find themselves challenged by Plath, who will — often unintentionally — spur them to creative, and destructive, heights of their own.
It’s a great premise, but the poetic structure — three voices and three timelines echoing the three notebooks — can at times get in its own way. The auction, for example, is spread out over so many pages that it loses some of its drama, while Rhodes’s self-cannibalizing jealousy infuses so many of her chapters that she teeters on becoming tiresome and shrill. But while the mystery is at times too tricky for its own good, the book is lifted by Kravetz’s supple writing. Plain but beautiful, he turns the ordinary poetic: “In my sweater pockets, my hands will always find a pair of cloth gloves,” Estee notes. Unable to process news of Plath’s death, Rhodes will observe, “The hour was early, and my comprehension was thick” before her ongoing competitive spirit is spurred by a “venom voice.” Although Barnhouse’s sections are presented with a more clinical and scientific tone, even these have moments of beauty, as when a successful treatment returns a patient’s skin to “a plump peach hue.”
Throughout, this graceful prose is put to good use, framing meaty questions about the commodification of art — and the artist. Kravetz makes the first point abundantly clear with the ridiculous spectacle of the auction, as the Dyce brothers “do a parade wave as they enter the sales floor” dressed in “slick tuxedos” custom tailored of velvet and gold. “Plainly, in their minds, Elton and Jay Jay are the guests of honor,” Estee notes. But the author plays it more subtly in the interactions between the curator and Nicolas Jacob, the BU professor who authenticates the notebooks. “Some things aren’t meant to belong to anybody,” he tells her. The notebooks themselves are items “Sylvia never wanted people to see. … No one was supposed to witness her hand.”
At times Jacob, who longs to study the notebooks, seems to be a stand-in for the author, raising questions of provenance and responsibility, and the fundamental nature of art. “[T]hese notebooks aren’t just telling one story, they’re telling several … and all in perfect agreement with one another,” he explains to Estee. The first is the narrative of “The Bell Jar,” the second lies in the crossed-out words and substitutions, “the story of Sylvia Plath creating this document.” The third is “the legacy of the document,” the only one that “isn’t written on paper.” These two book lovers will bring this deft debut to its rather surprising conclusion with many of those questions unanswered. The point, Plath would probably point out, is that they were asked.
THE LAST CONFESSIONS OF SYLVIA P.
By Lee Kravetz
Harper, 272 pages, $25.99
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.