Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Fair Maiden is a Great Read

Before I read A Fair Maiden, I'd never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates. I suppose this was based on a prejudice against what I considered "literary" writing that I didn't necessary want to read in my free time. (Which speaks ill of me, I know). I saw her work, book after book, for years, and never picked it up, despite the blurbs and accolades, despite the mention of the book awards on the back cover.

When I opened her new book, A Fair Maiden, I was forced to admit the folly of my prejudice. Oates had me hooked from the first word. This book is a blend of a Gothic romance and a mythical fairy tale, with a touch of horror and with unrelenting suspense.

It begins when Katya Spivak, a working class girl from New Jersey, takes a job as a nanny for a wealthy young couple in Bayhead Harbor, an affluent area on the Jersey Shore. Katya is not Jane Eyre, and yet there are traces of Jane in Katya's insecurity, her longing for independence from her often cruel family, her yearning to be loved by someone. Katya is sixteen, so it is a shock when, in the first sentence, Oates reveals that she will develop a relationship with the wealthy Marcus Kidder, who is 68 years old.

Publisher's Weekly jeered at this book, calling it 'derivative.' and claiming it was one of Oates' lesser works. Since it's the first book I've read by Oates, I didn't feel burdened by any comparisons, except to the myths and gothic tales to which Oates vaguely alludes with her fairy-tale tone.

My curiosity was piqued by the notion of the old man and the young girl. They both have flaws: he is proud and rich and desirous of beauty at any cost. She is poor and jealous and potentially grasping. So who, in this story, will use whom? That was my driving question as I plowed through A Fair Maiden, even toting it to the doctor's office with me so that I could read in the waiting room.

The book certainly didn't go where I thought it would, but it was fascinating, nonetheless. For me, the premise was buttressed by Oates' graceful writing and oddly inverted diction that bespoke of fantasy.

A good read is launched by a promising beginning. And Joyce Carol Oates? You had me at creepy old man. :)


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