My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first came across this book while looking for my next read on the train, I was immediately hooked on by the simple no-nonsense title of Plain Girl and incredulously surprised by the famous name of Arthur Miller, a celebrity playwright who had once married Marylin Monroe in his prime. Such an incongruous admixture of the images sprang in my mind like phantasms from a presumed association between the Dolorous and the Gorgeous, the Lonely and the Lovely, the Unlucky and the Lucky, all compactness in this beautifully elliptical and deeply heartfelt story about a plain girl whose jewel of beauty was wrapped in a dull, grey, crude titular epithet.
Janice Sessions, an intelligent young Jewish woman living in New York City, seems to share the sentiments of the introverts whose quiet modes of behaviors and shyness often make them unnoticed, if not obscure, among vociferous, glamorous crowds. Think Maupassant, who at the hour of his death confides in his close friend, “I coveted everything and enjoyed nothing.” And Charlotte Bronte, who always thinks she is deprived of beauty and fortune, which prevents her from a delight of love as a prerogative of beautiful fortunate women. And then the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein whose deformity puts him in a cruel shackle of absolute loneliness with an outcry of “I see inside but dare not to go inside!” They are the concerted echoes of estrangement – whether voluntarily or involuntarily imagined or devised – from lonely souls roaming around, wandering about in a search of happiness in life that can culminate in the union of loves, both Eros and Psyche, the spiritualization of sensuality in totality. This Janice is in want of, this is the source of her existential distress, noogenic frustration that keeps her away from anything miraculous and wonderful every happening to her.
In fact, I wonder if Miller writes this story of a plain girl on the thematics of existential frustration in which his protagonist is made to believe what she really isn’t, whereas her extraordinariness of resilient spirit against endless disappointment and distress renders her all the more distinguished from her peers whose ordinary femininity looks banal and trifle without stories to tell. Such emotional distress may arise from an existential vacuum caused by a collective value, such as in this story the disillusioned tenets of political and social ideologies ultimately culminating in World War II and the aftermath thereof. And Miller so elegantly and dexterously accounts for a woman’s solitary quest for the meaning of life, a sense of purpose in life as a woman of true value against epochal tides of world crisis. The apex of Miller’s literary finesse manifests in every sentence delicately nuanced sentiment wrapped in his elliptical expressions and laconic use of plain words, defying every streak of intricately baroque literature that does not communicate straightforwardly to the hearts of readers.
This book is not to discuss woman’s liberation or to lecture about the superiority of spiritual beauty over physical beauty that so many of you would quickly respond with stock answers. Janice’s doubt about her value of being loved and her preoccupied consciousness to her appearance makes her all the more palpable and realistic to those of you who find a kindred spirit in her and feel that you are not alone in loneliness and that what you think you are may not be the truth. Janice doesn’t need the glamour spell to transform herself into beauty because Janice is not a plain girl, nor has been, and will never be. The same goes for you.
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