The first time Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes, she bit him on the face hard enough to draw blood. Reader, he married her. And in exploring this stormy Anglo-American union, famously terminated by Plath's 1963 suicide, Middlebrook brings fresh insight to one of the century's most overexplored literary couples. The author's unsensationalistic triumph is to present Plath not as a martyr trapped in a bell jar but as a surprisingly robust and ambitious writer whose mental illness ultimately got the better of her. And although the rough-hewn, philandering Hughes was certainly no help, Middlebrook's portrait -- part bio, part literary essay -- doesn't indict him for Plath's death or for his oversight of her posthumous reputation, so much as reveal the complicated pattern of shadows her poetry cast over his, and vice versa. In the end, ''Her Husband'' makes a convincing case that their work was even more compelling than their lives. For this couple, that's an accomplishment.