A Fair Maiden: Joyce Carol Oates

I had heard a lot of great things said about Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories and novels. When I turned the first page of ‘A Fair Maiden’ I realized why that was so. The narrative is lush and flows smoothly, the prose is very beautiful and the characters are intriguing.  

The fair maiden of this novel is Katya Spivak, a sixteen year old girl working as a nanny to the kids of the rich Engelhardt family. Katya is herself a child in many ways. She is waiting for the return of her father who had promised many years ago he would be back for her birthday. She fantasizes about his return and at the same time is hoping for some signs of affection from her mother and sisters. But most of all she wishes to be loved. Love crosses her path in the form of 68 year old Marcus Kidder, a rich local who is an artist and a children’s book writer. Katya, vulnerable and too young to understand the dangerous path she is treading on, finds herself attracted to the old man which leads her to disastrous consequences.   

Oates’s writing is engaging. She paints the characters and moods with easy strokes. Katya is a very endearing protagonist and it is easy to perceive the desperation of her feelings and feel concerned for her well being. Marcus Kidder, the other important character, comes through as a dark and complex personality. It is he who weaves a fairy tale like net in which young Katya finds herself entangled. It is power of Oates's prose that he comes through as an intimidating and yet vulnerable person. 

‘A Fair Maiden’ has a fairy tale turn to it and attempts to entwine the fantastic with the realistic. But this is where I was a little less than satisfied with the novel. Though the novel begins promisingly, when it concludes it is not clear whether it intended to be a surreal tale, or a psychological fantasy or a realistic narrative. I think the problem was in the concluding few pages, where characters which had behaved realistically changed their bearing and behaved in a surreal fashion. 

This is a dark tale with a very disturbing subject matter at its heart. Joyce Carol Oates’s writing is very powerful and she gets the reader invested in her characters. Though I was not very happy with this particular novel, I am sure I will be reading more of her work.  


Raj said...

I have read only two of JCO novels, Broke Heart Blues and Solstice. Both were amazing but I liked the first one. Do read it if you get a chance, she is amazing.


Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks Raj. I will look out for these books. Your review is awesome! I had forgotten that you write this blog too. Am blogrolling it now.

litlove said...

I have this to read, and am still curious about it. I've only read two JCOs as well - Beasts, a powerful novella and Mother, Missing, about a woman whose mother is murdered. She is an amazing writer but I do find her plotting never goes quite where I think it will!

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi litlove,
The problem I had with this book was also the plot. The writing in itself was quite wonderful. I am looking forward to read Broken Heart Blues as Raj has recommended.

Komal Joshi said...

Hi, liked your blog & your readings.I had not read Joyce before, but I particularly read this "A Fair Maiden", after reading your review. Keep writing. :)