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Originally published Friday, March 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Lover of Unreason" | The mercurial life, death of a Ted Hughes conquest

The latest addition to the endless saga of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath comes as a biography of Assia Wevill, the woman who administered...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes's Doomed Love"
by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Carroll & Graf, 312 pp., $27.95

The latest addition to the endless saga of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath comes as a biography of Assia Wevill, the woman who administered the coup de gr√Ęce to the Plath/Hughes marriage when she and Hughes began an affair in 1962.

In 1969, having failed to pin down the sexually roving Hughes, Wevill killed herself in a copycat suicide that mimicked Plath's except for one awful detail. While Plath had kept her two children safe from the gas fumes that ended her life, Wevill made sure that her young daughter by Hughes died with her. For passion and retribution on a mythic scale, there's little in contemporary literature that compares with this real-life drama.

It's unlikely Wevill would warrant a biography if it weren't for her fateful relationship with Hughes and the tragedies that followed. Israeli authors Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev did an admirable job researching her life in "Lover of Unreason," but the portrait they assembled of Wevill is more a patchwork of information than a satisfying psychological portrayal. From her childhood as a Jewish refugee in Palestine to her later life in the glitzy advertising world of London, Wevill is painted as a capricious and exotic beauty, a calculating narcissist who conquers men and keeps them enthralled even as she moves on to the next. By the end of the book, her image has grown hazier.

Assia was married to her third husband, David Wevill, when they answered an advertisement to sublet Hughes and Plath's London flat. The two attractive and intelligent young couples hit it off and began socializing on occasion. When the two acclaimed poets invited their tenants to come spend a weekend with them in Devon, Assia reportedly told a friend, "I'm going to seduce Ted."

Through interviews with family members, former husbands and acquaintances, Wevill comes across as a charismatic but not very likable person. She's portrayed as someone who took what she wanted from life with little thought for how her actions might harm others. Regarding Plath's suicide, she reportedly complained that it "was very bad luck that the love affair was besmirched by this unfortunate event." Wevill read Plath's final journal and the manuscript of her second novel and told a friend she wanted Hughes to destroy it all. He eventually did get rid of the journal, which he said he did not want his children to read. The novel has never been found.

Like Plath, Wevill had a history of emotional instability and had attempted suicide before she met Hughes, albeit in a way that was meant to ensure that the attempt was unsuccessful.

So it is a bit jarring that toward the end of the book, the authors seem to portray her more sympathetically, as something of a victim. Assia had already had a number of abortions, one of a pregnancy by Hughes, before she bore Hughes' child. At the time, she was still married to and living with David and gave baby Shura his last name, although Hughes was listed as father on the birth certificate.

In a suicide letter, Assia declared she simply couldn't leave little Shura behind, explaining: "She's too old to be adopted." Perhaps that is how Assia rationalized the murder. But to outside eyes, it comes across as a way of one-upping Plath and striking a double blow at Hughes. Altogether, "Lover of Unreason" is a gloomy tale of a woman who borrowed her fulfillment from others and left behind a legacy of pain.

Sheila Farr is the visual arts critic for The Seattle Times.

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