Whilst I am rather a big fan of Arthur Miller’s plays, Plain Girl, which I purchased from Books for Amnesty in Cambridge back in April, was the first of his prose works which I had read. It seemed a fitting tome to read in the current climate; its blurb states that the novella (or, arguably, the extended short story) ‘is a beautifully crafted account of a quest for personal fulfilment against a backdrop of world crisis’. Rather than the threat of Trump and the havoc which he is already wreaking, the threat in Plain Girl is Hitler; even in New York, ‘the Germans were rallying on the street corners to bait Jews and praise Hitler on summertime Saturday nights’.
Published in the United States in 1992, and in the United Kingdom in 1995, Plain Girl has been very highly praised; the Evening Standard calls it a ‘superb fiction’ which ‘deserves praising to the top of the highest skyscraper for its humanity, wit and depth’, and The Sunday Times deems it ‘a tiny jewel of a book.
Janice Sessions, the protagonist of the piece, is seen by all as a plain girl, despite being the daughter of a ‘stylish old-fashioned New York Jew’. We first meet her as she lays beside her dead husband in bed; much of the novel then goes back to look at her past relationships. When her beau, a ‘passionate communist’ named Sam, leaves for war, she begins to discover her own identity, falling in love once more, and feeling valued.
To anyone at all familiar with his plays, it will come as no surprise that Plain Girl is marvellously written. The sense of both time and place is strong, and Miller demonstrates a wonderful insight. From the first page, Janice has rather a startling psychological depth to her, and is not at all a stereotypical woman of her class and period. She is rather a complex character: ‘She was and wanted to be a snob… She wondered if she’d been drawn out of the womb and lengthened, or her mother startled by a giraffe… She had a tonic charm and it was almost – although not quite, of course – enough, not since childhood…’. So many of the themes which are explored here are of great importance now, from politics and grief, to family, war, sexual relations, and literature.
Plain Girl is a poignant and resonant novella. At just 76 pages of rather large type, it is incredibly brief, a mere breath of a story. Regardless, Miller packs in such depth. The whole has been well ordered, and intelligently crafted. Miller provides a quick but thought-provoking foray into the mind of a woman, and her struggle to find her own place in an unstable world. Whilst Plain Girl did not take my breath away in quite the way that his plays have done, and did not feel quite as clever, it is certainly worth seeking out.