Books and Conversation: The Bell Jar

This month's featured reading group - Riverside Reads (aka Bookaholics Anonymous) - reviewed Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar.

This month's featured reading group - Riverside Reads (aka Bookaholics Anonymous) - reviewed Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (download our guide to find out more). Here's what they thought.

The Bell Jar was and is Sylvia Plath's one and only novel. Published in 1963 a few months before she committed suicide though no one actually knows when she wrote it. This is the tale of Esther Greenwood, a young woman who seems to have it all, a debutant in New York taken on as an intern into the world of fashion media from the American country side and how this leads to some sort of breakdown.

The book is definitely one of two halves. The first in the busy and hectic setting of 1950s New York where pretty much whatever Esther could want she is able to get. Her life evolves around freebies, lunches (one ending in a hilarious taxi ride and bathroom encounter of debutant food poisoning and its effects), parties and meeting strange and fascinating men. You would think this would be every young woman's dream and indeed Esther once did though by the time we meet her it's clear the shine has worn off. Everything is routine and alongside Doreen she starts to rebel, when this doesn't work she simply counts down the days till she can be home writing and waiting for her scholarship to start.

The second part of the book is set 'back home' after the city life Esther finds herself more unhappy and once she is told (by her hopeless mother) that she no longer has a scholarship her dreams of writing are shattered and from this point on we watch as Esther methodically plans killing herself.

I had always thought that The Bell Jar was an oppressive novel which may by the end leave you as depressed as the narrator. I didn't find it so. Yes it's incredibly dark, there is no mistaking that, but some of it is incredibly witty. I had no idea there would be so much humour in this book. Though I wouldn't want her as a friend I loved Esther's voice. Her opinions on everything, though she only ever has them internally, are incredibly observant and dry. I actually laughed out loud when she sees her 'forced' beau naked and lets us know just what she thinks of that sight. One minute she is magnificently manipulative and cunning, the next she is naïve hopeless and childlike and always strangely likeable and irritating in one.

Review by Simon Savidge



More thoughts from the group:

'This was an excellent book for a reading group as it literally kept us all talking for hours, examining Esther's personality, her relationships with other characters and the strange events that affect her throughout. I very much recommend this novel to any book group!'

'I'll admit that I loved the first third of the book, set in New York, much more than the sections covering her psychiatric experiences. Perhaps it's the beautiful writing and the pitch-perfect descriptions of Manhattan where 'the city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking' or maybe I just identified with Esther's cynicism, her refusal to get caught-up in the shallowness of the fashion industry, the endless parties, the free gifts. She wants something more meaningful even if she hasn't quite figured out what that might comprise...' Kim Forrester

'I had avoided this book in the past, as I thought it would be a dark, depressing book, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book does deal with some difficult subject matter, but it never felt oppressive.' Jackie Bailey

'Plath/Esther Greenwood is exceptionally observant and witty; her observations and insight into her thoughts and thought processes are highly amusing; Esther gives voice to bizarre thoughts, the type of which we wouldn't admit to anyone. I appreciated the stripped-back exposure of Esther, naked and wounded.' Claire Boyle



Simon Savidge on the Riverside Readers Book Group

Riverside Readers (aka Bookaholics Anonymous) are a fairly new book group which I started when I couldn't find one in London, which sounds stupid but London being so vast yes there are a lot but they are all in remote areas and so through my blog asking readers if there was a central London book group they could recommend. After no one could I got in touch with Kim of Kimbofo and we set one up for book lovers be they bloggers or not and it's a wonderfully mixed group so the discussion is great.

How long you have been meeting and how regularly?

We have been meeting for just six months so you could say we are in the honeymoon period still. Everyone gets on, the conversations are wonderful and Christmas time sees us having a Christmas dinner and Secret Santa. A few of us go to the pub after but some have a long commute in, as we now have people commuting to join us.

Do you meet at the same place each time?

We do indeed; we seem to have found a home at the Southbank Centre even though we aren't doing it in conjuncture with them. We are looking for a possible new venue but it will stay by the river.

How do you get the conversation going?

We started off with myself of Kim just welcoming everyone. Then we always have an ice-breaker which tends to be to discuss briefly a book, apart from the book group choice which people might not love, we have read and loved this month. Although we have regulars we are getting new members each month and so we want to welcome them. It is then down to whoever has chosen the latest read starts the discussion of with a quick reintroduction and it naturally goes from there. We haven't had a group where discussion has been a problem we all have thoughts to bring to each group, we don't print of questions before hand though we haven't needed them.

How do you choose the books you discuss?

We take it in turns we go in alphabetical order, except for the first choice which favourites and we all shared our favourite book yet, then the choice was mine as the group said I had got them together so I should start. The person whose turn it is to choice has the final choice they simply tell us what we are reading next. It doesn't matter if anyone has read it before or anything like that and any genre is welcome. The only rules we have are that it needs to cost less than a tenner and be in print. So really the options are endless.

Which books have provoked the best discussions?

As we are quite new we have only read a few books together but so far 1984 by George Orwell, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Voice Over by Celine Curiol have provided the most book discussion, it works best when the books have mixed reactions. We welcome anymore recommendations though.

Riverside Reads also shared their thoughts online:

Savidge Reads


Paperback Reader

Novel Insights