Red Comet, Heather Clark’s heroic biography of Sylvia Plath, draws on a plethora of untapped archives and letters—and even a previously undiscovered novel—to resurrect Plath ... illuminates Plath’s life in unprecedented detail. Suicide attempts take a backseat to fiercely focused genius ... Red Comet achieves the remarkable: It’s a majestic tome with the narrative propulsion of a thriller. We now have the complete story.
... [an] incandescent, richly researched biography ... Red Comet takes us on a literary picaresque, drawing on untapped archives, Plath’s complete correspondence, interviews with surviving members of the couple’s social and professional circles, and, most crucially, on Hughes’ journals and letters. From both perspectives Clark evokes how their common purpose rose and later diverged, invaluable reportage missing from other books ... Clark delves deeper than biographers who have gone before: We see the poet as if peering through the Hubble Telescope for the first time, blurred galaxies and nebulas bursting into crystalline detail. Yet this gold standard of a biography does something more: Red Comet is a page-turner, particularly when Clark shifts to Plath’s final two years in England ... By centering Plath’s evolving command of craft—by focusing on her peerless lyrical ear—Clark peels away clichéd interpretations much as the poet shed her false selves ... A bravura performance, Red Comet is the one we’ve waited for.
...just as one is wondering whether there can possibly be anything new to be said, here comes Heather Clark’s Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath hurtling down the chute, weighing in at more than 1,000 densely printed pages ... as Plath and her complex, much analyzed legacy fade with the passing of successive generations, and her work grows more removed from the cultural mainstream, now seems a prime moment to revive her tale and try to bring all of its elements together ... poignant ... Clark is at pains to see Plath clearly, to rescue her from the reductive clichés and distorted readings of her work largely because of the tragedy of her ending ... there is no denying the book’s intellectual power and, just as important, its sheer readability. Clark is a felicitous writer and a discerning critic of Plath’s poetry ... Instead of depleting my interest in Plath, the book stimulated it further ... Clark’s talent for scene-painting and inserting the stray but illustrative detail ('By January 31, the date of her last surviving check stub, she had only 59 pounds') contributes to create a harrowing picture of the narrow confines of the London that Plath had moved to with such high hopes.
Biographer and Plath scholar Heather Clark lifts the poet’s life from the Persephone myth it has become and examines it in all its complexity. In the massive effort that is Red Comet, Clark admirably identifies and resists the morbid tendency to look at every moment, every work, as a signpost on the way to Plath’s tragic suicide ... Clark’s detailed, multidimensional treatment gives Plath’s life and work its dignity, character and sense of interiority. We get the full scope of Plath’s incredible talent here ... Considering Plath in this complexifying light, Clark unlooses some of the bonds that have held back this incomparable artist.
... magnificent ... If Clark’s goal in writing this big book, nearly a decade in the making, was to swap out that tired, overworked symbol for a three-dimensional human, in Red Comet she has succeeded far beyond the extent of all previous Plath biographies ... Clark is as perceptive about the work of this final year as she is about the rest of Plath’s writings ... Clark has consulted an enormous array of primary sources in order to assemble this life, ranging from unpublished letters and psychiatric records to interviews with virtually everybody who knew Plath or worked with her. The result is a clearer and more comprehensive account of Plath’s life than any that have appeared before, particularly strong in analyzing the complexities of her evolving relationship with Hughes but also wonderfully detailed in giving readers a look at the life of a working author ... although Clark sometimes succumbs to the biographer’s curse of over-documentation (we get the point long, long before every single rejection slip is accounted for), this granular picture of Plath the writer is invaluable in dispelling that image of a death-obsessed high priestess. This is a Sylvia Plath who jokes and loves and encourages and horses around. It’s an intensely human portrait.
The account of Plath’s youth in Massachusetts is exhaustive and utterly exhausting for mortal readers ... Clark is strong on the poetry and on the mutuality of the couple’s artistic collaboration. At times she is a little too meticulously granular, too reluctant to give us her own take. But her hands-off approach is appropriate for the story’s messy, tragic end ... Clark stays commendably even-handed ... Clark makes use of fresh information, including new interview testimony and recently discovered letters to Beuscher, to reconstruct Plath’s final days and argue convincingly that she did mean to take her own life.
[An] exhaustively researched, frequently brilliant masterwork that stretches to 1,072 pages (including notes). It is an impressive achievement representing a prizeworthy contribution to literary scholarship and biographical journalism ... Portions of Red Comet are deeply moving, but a tendency to downplay Hughes’s violence will likely attract critics ... Plath’s loss continues to resonate.
Clark is at pains to set Plath apart from the [feminist] movement that claimed her, stressing her complicated desire to be both a midwife to male genius and an equal to the male poets she knew ... Red Comet’s most valuable contribution is its clever and careful tessellation of the texts and creeds that produced Ariel and the other late poems. The analysis suffers from an overemphasis on Plath’s juvenilia, which is treated with an earnestness that sometimes strains credulity. Yet over hundreds of pages, Clark skilfully weaves together Plath’s influences, from Nietzsche, Joyce, Dostoevsky and Yeats, to Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell and, perhaps most important, the work of Ted Hughes ... If Clark ultimately fails in her attempt to 'free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past 50 years', it is because her predecessors—beginning with Plath herself—were too successful in their mythmaking.
... meticulous, magisterial, and surprisingly engrossing ... Deploying a series of new facts and deft character studies, Clark constructs a more nuanced view of Plath’s early life than did earlier biographers ... both balanced and compelling reading ... Clark inarguably achieves what she set out to do: to 'free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past 50 years and reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.'
Red Comet is a mighty achievement. Clark is compassionate, clear-eyed, sceptical. Each chapter reads with the ease of a novel ... In Clark’s telling there are no heroes, no villains. All are flawed ... Plath’s resilience, genius and insight blaze through the book. Where Clark fails in her stated intent is in separating her subject from her suicide. The end is foreshadowed for hundreds of pages ... At the telltale compression of the pages, I found myself pleading: don’t end, don’t die. The life and the writing are too good not to go on. This is a vast and heartbreaking book. I would not have wished it shorter.
With Heather Clark’s new biography, Red Comet,, clocking in at more than 1,100 pages, the Plath cup runneth over ... Clark is the first biographer able to scan pages from the archive rather than take 'hastily scribbled' notes on site, and it shows ... Where Clark treads familiar ground, she amplifies what we already know in compelling and painful ways ... Clark masterfully analyzes the poetry with intelligent incorporation of the biography ... Red Comet shows that the achievement of Sylvia Plath was miraculous — but it wasn’t spasmodic, or rare. It was hard-won, every single day.
The first thing to say is that the author quotes extensively from Plath’s work, a luxury denied in the past by her estate to most biographers ... Clark has also unearthed illuminating documents ... One of the aims of this biography, as set out in the prologue, is to rescue Plath from pathologisation — a tendency to view Sylvia’s suicide as her destiny. This may well be a noble aim, but the author underplays key scenes which show Plath in a less than flattering light ... unfortunately the trade-off results in a biography that, for all its merits — its great readability and astute analysis of the poetry — is in danger of becoming that dreaded thing: a hagiography.
Clark entices us with the impossible: an 'unbiased,' authorised biography of Sylvia Plath ... Red Comet is the kind of serious literary biography Plath has long deserved but, until now, not received. By drawing on an enormous body of research (including Harriet Rosenstein’s recently rediscovered work, and a fragmentary draft of an unfinished novel discovered by Clark), and layering frequently contradictory accounts, Clark assembles a fuller and more complicated picture of Plath than any biographer ... Clark takes Plath’s juvenilia far more seriously than her predecessors ... There are rare, shimmering moments where Clark succeeds in capturing Sylvia Plath. But she flickers. It’s only in Plath’s own work that we really see her.
Clark stands firmly in the camp of Plath biographers who do not define the artist by her suicide. A good detective, Clark uses unpublished letters, manuscripts, and diaries; court, police, and psychiatric records; and new interviews to rescue facts from the fictions Plath’s sensationalists have built careers on. Her scholarship (exhaustive at 1152 pages) frees the artist from the vengeful hausfrau killed by her 'murderous art,' as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1971 ... Refusing to see her subject as doom-ridden allows Clark to offer entirely new insights into Plath’s creative process ... If Clark avoids the 'cultural baggage' so many Plath biographers have indulged in, I question whether the level of detail, vital in documenting the last weeks of Plath’s life, serves the reader well in tracing her early years (do we really need to know every guy she dated and what cocktails they drank?). But if Plath felt abandoned in the winter of 1963, the medical history Clark uncovers suggests reasons.
... exhaustive ... Unlike other biographies of Plath (1932-63), Clark’s traces her subject’s literary and intellectual development rather than concentrating on her undoing through suicide ... Clark quotes extensively from previously unpublished primary sources such as letters and diaries, focusing on the poet’s works as well as her life ... A masterful biography, that will especially interest literary scholars.
Clark provides extensive detail about Plath’s life. Some details—Cold War US and 1950s attitudes toward mental illness—are fascinating and useful. But hundreds of pages about Plath’s 'heavy dating,' including how she did her hair, chose her clothes, and what they ate, is tedious ... Plath’s art is explained, but its philosophical importance, and indeed urgency, is not fully clear ... The red comet gets a bit lost in details.
... massive, insightful ... suggests the biology of her mental illness. Clark also captures the frenetic pace of Plath’s life ... A clear light shines on Plath’s biting wit, even in jottings from her lowest moments ... The electric images and honed line breaks of Plath’s poetry surface more frequently toward the end of Red Comet” with Clark’s close commentary and nods to the work’s indebtedness to the literary influences of the day ... a critical examination of what it means to be a female artist, to suffer from depression, and to be alone, as it is revelatory about this one particular life and the art that came from it. The red comet (an image from her poem 'Stings') is an apt metaphor for Plath, but more interesting is Clark’s focus on Plath’s internalization of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a sense of 'Icarian lust.'
In her exhaustive new biography, Clark starts from scratch in defining Plath, carefully separating the popular myth of an unstable and overdramatic prodigy from the real Sylvia: troubled, yes, but also joyful in her reading, ruthlessly self-critical, and blazingly ambitious. Clark had access to material never before incorporated into a Plath biography, including letters and psychiatric records. This material not only fleshes out Plath herself, it also refocuses characters from the Plath-Hughes mythos ... This additional material also prompts fresh readings of the poems, which makes the late work especially moving. In her introduction, Maggie Nelson writes, 'To be called the Sylvia Plath of anything is a bad thing.' Red Comet has the authority and insight to permanently correct that sentiment.
A sober and detailed critical biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest and most misunderstood poets ... the author meticulously explores Plath’s omnivorous literary interests and busy social life ... The author’s attention to specifics serves her very well ... A major biography that redeems Plath from the condescension of easy interpretation.
[A] page-turning, meticulously researched biography of Sylvia Plath ... Clark’s in-depth scholarship and fine writing result in a superb work that will deliver fresh revelations to Plath’s many devoted fans.