17. The Bell Jar (1963)
Author: Sylvia Plath
Areas Featured: Upper East Side
The semi-autobiographical story of a girl who comes to New York to work for a magazine and then leaves, taking some dark parts of the city with her, opens with one of the most striking first sentences in American literature: "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."
The sentence dates the action as taking place in 1953, the height of McCarthy's Red Scare, and the mounting political frenzy mimics the paranoia eating our narrator away from the inside. Esther buys shoes at Bloomingdale's on her lunch break and attends parties inside the Waldorf-Astoria, meeting authors. She's haunted by the looks of women frozen on billboards, clinging to men.
Plath's achievement has the grace of Virginia Woolf with a vulnerability rarely heard then or since. —GT