Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!
About Amelia Diane Coombs
Amelia Diane Coombs writes books for young adults. Back in the day, she majored in English and went on to receive her MFA in Creative Writing. Now she writes unlikable female protagonists, positive mental health representation, and swoony romances with soft boys. As a lifelong native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she resides in beautiful Sonoma County with her boyfriend and their Siberian cat. When she isn’t writing or reading, Amelia happily fills her days with beekeeping, card and tabletop games, hiking, and volunteering with cats. Her debut novel, Keep My Heart In San Francisco, will be released by Simon Pulse in Summer 2020.
The first thing I had in common with Esther Greenwood was our age. At nineteen, I picked up The Bell Jar. Despite being a die-hard Sylvia Plath fan for years, it wasn’t until I was in the odd, in-between state of being a high school graduate — who still lived above her parents’ garage — that I dipped my toes into Esther’s hazy summer in New York City.
Esther isn’t your typical female protagonist. She doesn’t kick bad guy ass, she isn’t wildly searching after true love. She doesn’t grow up and fully come into her identity through positivity and light. Rather, she discovers who she is during one strange and awful summer — starting with a magazine internship in New York. Esther is a college student hailing from Massachusetts, and knows she should be pinching herself over the opportunity to intern for a big magazine in a big city. And yet…she doesn’t feel much of anything at all. She is a fledgling feminist, scoffing at double-standards around virginity, and above all else: she is mentally ill. In other words, Esther Greenwood was my heroine.
The second thing I had in common with Esther Greenwood was her depression. As a nineteen-year-old struggling to find stability with my own mental health, I connected to Esther. It meant so, so much to me to read a fictional, female character that reflected my own personal struggles. One who was nuanced and real. One I could relate to.
As The Bell Jar progresses, we watch Esther descend — to put it simply — into madness. Her apathy toward her summer internship slides into a full-fledged depressive episode. After several failed suicide attempts, Esther finds herself in a psych hospital, under the care of a kind, female doctor. There, she builds herself back up with the help of therapy and medication. Against all odds, Esther gets better.
Beyond her depression, I connected with Esther because she wasn’t a traditional literary heroine. On the page, she felt upsettingly real and relatable. I grew up during the YA boom of Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan, and as admirable as those ladies were, I couldn’t connect. Obviously, I didn’t literally kick ass or live dangerously by loving a vampire. But Esther? Depressed, disillusioned Esther? She was strong in her own right. She made sense.
I’m grateful for Esther Greenwood. I’m grateful for the moment I picked up The Bell Jar, that summer I was in junior college, trying to decide what the hell to do with my life. Because Esther, more or less, has a happy ending. She is mentally ill, yet she gets better. Those are rare to come by with depressed protagonists, and it gave me hope. Oftentimes, depression (and mental illness in general) is romanticized. But Plath’s creation of Esther Greenwood was one of the truest and least romantic portrayals of depression I’ve ever read.
Even though Plath herself succumbed to her struggles, I’m forever comforted that Esther is preserved in time with her happy — yet realistic — ending within the pages of The Bell Jar. Mental health is still a taboo subject to approach. Especially in Young Adult, which I write. Plath took that subject head on, in the 1960s no less, with Esther. Today, I can only hope to bring a tenth of that realism and empathy to the characters I craft.
Title Keep My Heart In San Francisco
Author Amelia Diane Coombs
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Publication Date June 23rd 2020 by Simon Pulse
Find It On Goodreads
Caroline Wilson — Chuck — is the reluctant heir to Bigmouth’s Bowl, her family’s ancient San Francisco bowling alley. She knew business was dwindling, but when she finds out that her father owes an absurd amount of back rent, things take on an entirely new light. Suddenly, her dreams of staying in her beloved San Francisco to attend fashion school are seeming less likely, especially when she finds her father looking at property in Surprise, Arizona. This is not the sort of surprise she welcomes.
Chuck’s only option is to come up with the money herself — and as luck would have it, her former best friend Beckett Porter has an idea how to make it work. Sure, hustling might be slightly illegal, but if it worked for Paul Newman, maybe it can work for them. Right?
Beckett and Chuck team up to infiltrate the Bay Area action bowling scene, with enough success that saving Bigmouth’s seems within reach. But Chuck can’t shake the nagging feeling that she’s acting irrational — too much like her mentally ill mother for comfort — and lying to her father and aunt is weighing heavily upon her. Plus, despite her best efforts to keep things strictly business, Beckett’s charm is winning her back over. Can she pull off saving Bigmouth’s, protecting her father and aunt, keeping tabs on her mental health, and deal with her newfound feelings about her former best friend? If she loses, Bigmouth’s Bowl and their San Francisco legacy are gone forever. But if she wins, she might just get everything she ever wanted.