book review: Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer

SLEEPWALKING by Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead, 2014; originally published in 1982

It feels a bit silly and pointless to critique the 1982 debut of a prolific and well-established author on the grounds that it reads like a debut, but I have to get my criticisms out of the way: this book was remarkably clumsy—it reads like two concepts for two different novels stapled rather than sewn together.

The first of the two concepts is the story of ‘the death girls,’ three Swarthmore freshman who are each obsessed with a different female poet who died by suicide (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and an invented poet, Lucy Ascher). The novel introduces the three girls with the striking opening sentence ‘They talked about death as if it were a country in Europe’ and the prologue continues on to explain their strange friendship, predicated on a similar reverence for death—but then this conceit falls away completely. Naomi and Laura, two of the death girls, barely factor into this novel at all—this is the story of Claire, coming to terms with the death of her brother as well as the death of her favorite poet; her story is shared only by the parents of Lucy Ascher, who have fallen apart in the years since their daughter died.

Enter the second concept: an unsentimental excavation of the many faces of grief. In spite of the obvious thematic parallels between these two narratives that Wolitzer thought up, she is unable to integrate them into one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced and unnatural. The ‘death girl’ setup (as well as the introduction to Claire’s narratively pointless boyfriend, Julian) is ultimately the framework for the novel’s real aims, but it’s flimsy and unconvincing and honestly a bit of a letdown to anyone who approaches this looking for a Secret History-esque campus novel about close-knit friendships. (The bulk of the novel takes place off campus, to add insult to injury.)

But that’s all okay—again, it’s a debut by an author who’s been working for 40 years, so it’s hard not to give Wolitzer the benefit of the doubt. And in spite of all the aforementioned clumsiness, I really enjoyed reading this book. Wolitzer’s meditations on death and grief are surprisingly fresh and insightful, and though the other death girls don’t leave much of an impression, Claire is a remarkably well-drawn character. This was actually my first Wolitzer, and I’m interested to see how her style has evolved through the years.


9 thoughts on “book review: Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer

    • That’s so funny: it took me two tries as well, but I did absolutely love The Interestings when I finally finished it earlier this year. I’ve also read The Wife (utterly brilliant) and skimmed The Female Persuasion, but found it somewhat dated and predictable. I wonder if her later novel Belzhar took up similar ideas (teens and Sylvia Plath) more successfully — I have a copy but haven’t read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So interesting—I’ve gotten conflicting feedback from you, Eleanor, and Laura on which Wolitzers are worthwhile. I guess I’ve got to try them all?!

        Oooh I hadn’t even heard of Belzhar; sounds like I need to look into that!


    • Ooh good to know! I actually had NO idea Wolitzer was so prolific before I read this (I would have thought she’d written… four books, maybe?!) so I was a bit at a loss of which one to try next.

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  1. Interesting – I’ve read two Wolitzers, The Interestings and The Female Persuasion. Didn’t like The Interestings (sorry Elle!), thought it was too much like any other novel following the post-college lives of a group of friends. Liked The Female Persuasion much more but can’t remember much about it now. Like you, I’m much more drawn to the original pitch for this one than the way it sounds like it develops.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh interesting—sounds like I need to give The Interestings a try to be a tie breaker. The Female Persuasion sounds interesting as well, I did mean to read that one when it was big a few years back. And yeah, Sleepwalking was just not what I wanted it to be/what it could have been—still a really interesting read but probably not worth visiting if its messiness sounds too frustrating.

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  2. I think the only thing I’ve read by Wolitzer is The Interestings. I can barely remember it now but I think I liked it, yet I’ve never been drawn to read anything more from her. I do think her work has grown and improved from the beginning, based on what you’re describing here, because The Interestings was much more polished.

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  3. I really loved The Interestings and guessing your taste, I think you will love it. I said in my review that though it “suffers from its own ambition and gets melodramatic in its second part, it is still an intelligent, intricate, vividly-descriptive, multi-themed novel”. I have seen the film adaptation of Wolitzer’s The Wife with Glenn Close, it wasn’t perfect, but still palpable, nuanced.


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