For me, Joyce Carol Oates' books are the reader's equivalent of a train wreck. Almost, but not quite; the writing is superb, so it's not as though the stories have no redeeming value. It's more that they always leave me feeling, well, more than a little icky. And yet I'm always quick to snap each new one up when I come across it. I can't seem to look away.
A Fair Maiden (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) is no exception.
Summary (from Library Journal Review): "A summer nanny in an upscale New Jersey Shore community, 15-year-old Katya Spivak is approached by wealthy 68-year-old author and artist Marcus Kidder -- and one immediately wonders where this is leading. Oates (Dear Husband) creates a growing sense of evil as Katya becomes more involved with Kidder. First she visits him innocently enough with her charges for tea, then comes over alone when she needs money to help her mother out of a jam; finally, after one unreasonable demand, she rebels. In exploring Katya's life and relations, including her gambling, man-chasing mother, jealous sisters, and criminal boyfriend Ray, Oates makes it clear why a wealthy, sophisticated man would become irresistible to Katya. The answer to the question whether Kidder's intentions are good or evil and whether Katya will eventually be saved or ruined lead to the climax of this short but satisfying novel."
Opening Lines: "Innocently it began. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight."
My take: A good book, especially if you enjoy Oates' work and/or have a taste for the contemporary gothic and vaguely grotesque. I did, however, come away feeling like the ending, while unsettling, wasn't nearly as horrific as the jacket blurb had made it out to be. Yes, Kidder is a lech, and when you finally realize what his ultimate plan for Katya is, your (or at least my) reaction is somewhere between a shudder and an "Ew!"
What's interesting, though, is the nuanced way in which Oates manage to make your basic (albeit rich) dirty old man appear almost sympathetic. By comparison, the blurred snapshots of Katya's other romantic/ sexual encounters, unremarkable though they may be, seem far more perverse and ultimately damaging. What's worse for an impressionable, not-as-worldly-as-she-thinks young working-class girl: a brief liaison with a much-older man who asks about her dreams and tells her repeatedly that she's talented and beautiful, or a blatantly coercive on-and-off affair with an only-slightly-older cousin who also happens to be an ex-con? How will each one affect the woman Katya ultimately grows into? Without giving too much away, there's a violent encounter between the two towards the end of the book that didn't hit me till after the fact as, "Wow. This says something about what's in store for Katya, from here on out."
I do, of course, need to jump on my socioeconomic soapbox for a minute, and argue that Oates' depiction of Katya's home town of Vineland may be unfairly bleak. OK, it's not quite Knockemstiff, but still ... no matter how blue-collar the town, I find it hard to believe that no one of Katya's acquaintance has ever done anything except get pregnant or join the military out of high school. Surely there'd be a cousin or neighbor at community college somewhere? Believe me, I totally get the "working-class kid goes to upper middle/ upper-class summer resort" culture shock thing (been there, done that), but a bit more subtlety on this point might have made the point more effectively.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.