Taylor's Reviews > Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford
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's review
Nov 04, 14

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, own, given, favorites, real-people, just-like-a-woman, women-writers, in-a-time-long-ago, in-a-land-far-away, golden-years, not-by-a-white-guy, hidden-gems, writing-about-writers
Recommended for: writers, women, women writers
Read in December, 2008

This is a remarkable biography, for a multitude of reasons.

First, I must admit my own ignorance when it comes to much of Millay's work. I think I was surprised by how well-known she was in her day. I took advanced English courses in high school, studied English quite a bit in college, and yet my knowledge of her was so very limited, and the same went for my English nerd friends who I brought her up to. This either reflects poorly on the school systems, the way that fame of women is regarded, the way that poetry is regarded, or all three.

As with so many people who show promise so young - when she wrote her first acclaimed poem she was but a teenager - she was quickly thrust under the spotlight and cherished each moment it was on her. She led a very dramatic and alluring life, and as usually goes, it ended sadly and more quickly than it should've.

I've read some reviews complaining about how much the book focuses on her lovers, but I think each is very telling about Millay, particularly Ferdinand Earle, Arthur Ficke, Edmund Wilson and, of course, Eugen Boissevain. I was actually most interested in her relationship with Boissevain, as a result of the portrayal of her love life. It seemed like no one would ever be able to make her commit in anyway, so you grew curious about what it was that Boissevain had/did that the others didn't. I ended up breezing through reading about the "juicy" parts out of curiosity for what it was that thrust her into domestic life.

What he did was mother her - which made sense, considering Millay's relationship with her mother. Millay had an incredibly close - and odd - relationship with her mother, and it seemed as though there was no other woman that Millay was ever so close to, including her sisters, both of whom she also had very strange relationships with.

Getting back to Boissevain, their relationship was incredibly fascinating. For example, while Millay was addicted to morphine, Boissevain began taking the drug, as well, so that he could understand what she was going through. When she quit, he quit. When he was dealing with his lung cancer and had difficulties breathing, she mimicked this, trying to understand his pain. If that's not love, I don't know what is.

I do agree with the people who wanted more poetry in the book - but the book is so good, if you don't own any of her poetry, you won't have any problem in going out and buying one. Milford does do a good job of illuminating Millay's creative process, though, and I think that's more important in the context of this biography.

I found all too many similarities between myself and Millay, which made it an interesting read, but I think any young, ambitious writer will see a bit of themselves in her... which is probably why my Grandmother had the smarts to give it to me.

All in all, a fascinating read, even for someone who was rather unfamiliar with Millay's work. I have a strong appreciation for who she is, and I think this was a nice introduction. Like any long non-fiction book, it can take quite a bit of time to read through, and it has its sluggish moments - I'm a fast reader and it took me about a month and a half - but it's worth reading, all the same.

Note: I'm still thinking about this, even weeks later, so it gets bumped up to five stars.
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