Set in modern-day Ohio, So Shelly is told from the perspective of John Keats, a lonely high school junior whose only friend—Michelle "Shelly" Shelley—has recently drowned in an apparent boating accident. Accompanied by Shelly’s lifelong friend Gordon Byron, Keats steals Shelly’s ashes from her memorial service. The boys are determined to lay her body to rest on a small island in Lake Erie, and as they make their escape they analyze their shared past, romantic and otherwise.
Despite its title, So Shelly is really about Byron. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is one of the most notorious figures in the history of English literature, and Roth faithfully includes many of the eyebrow-raising elements of his life story, including his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his governess, his incestuous affairs with his half-sister and cousins, and his obsession with Greek freedom fighters. Shelly’s life is much more freely adapted—Roth combines elements of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s biographies into one character, and [SPOILER] adds some deeply unnecessary drama to their already drama-filled lives in the form of an incestuous rape storyline. Keats gets the shortest shrift, and appears as a nebbishy kid whose family members have a bad habit of dying young.
Byron could be the poster boy for the list of literary geniuses whose work has to be admired despite the horrific behavior exhibited in their personal lives, and Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats were no charmers, either. Plus, all three writers have lost much of their name recognition, although we sincerely hope most high school students have heard of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. This left us scratching our heads over who, exactly, Roth’s novel was written for—because if you’re unfamiliar with (or unimpressed by) Byron’s literary output, So Shelly is just a novel about a womanizing jackass.
Review based on publisher-provided copy.
Labels: Book Reviews