A FAIR MAIDEN by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Quote:

“You are thinking that I have some sort of design on you, dear Katya. I know, I can read your thoughts, which show so clearly, so purely, in your face. And you are correct, dear: I do have a design on you. I have a mission for you, I think! If you are indeed the one.”

“What do you mean? The One? Katya stammered, not knowing whether this was serious or one of Mr. Kidder’s enigmatic jokes.

“A fair maiden – to be entrusted with a crucial task. For which she would be handsomely rewarded, in time.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JAN 13, 2011)

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the greatest and most prolific writers working today. She is the winner of the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and more awards than can be fit into this short review. Her recent short novel, A Fair Maiden, is one of her more minor works. Though I call it minor, it is by Joyce Carol Oates and, by any standard, that makes it major.

Katya Spivak is sixteen years old and is working as a summer nanny on the Jersey shore for a relatively wealthy family. She comes from the wrong side of the tracks, a lower class area of New Jersey where most of the adults, if they are working at all, work at minimum wage jobs. Many adults have been in jail or are in jail. Children grow up with no books in their houses and their role models are uneducated, impulsive and often violent adults.

Katya is amazed at how the rich live with their maids, nannies, yachts, and affluent life styles. One day she is walking with the two little children who are in her care for the summer and an elderly man approaches her. She happens to be gazing into a lingerie shop, focusing on an intimate red lingerie set. When the elderly man, Marcus Kidder, asks her what she is looking at, she tells him she is looking at a white virginal night gown. He asks her to his house for tea with the children and she agrees.

Their relationship develops and it is a strange one, mixed with both longing and repulsion on Katya’s side and sexual longing and a fairy-tale like longing on Marcus’s behalf for Katya. He sees her as his soul mate, his “fair maiden.” When she visits him a second time he presents a present to her, a package that contains the white gown and the red lingerie set. She can’t figure out how he knew she was really looking at the red set and she is insulted, leaving the house shortly.

Katya is determined not to return again but she can’t help herself. Though the people she nannies for are wealthy, they are not in the same class as Marcus Kidder who is an icon of the town. He refers to himself as a trust fund baby. There are libraries named after him, plaques around town with his family name on them and he is well-known as a philanthropist.

Their relationship gets stranger and stranger – convoluted, sexually desperate, ambivalent and wrought with tension. Mr. Kidder tells Katya there will be a big prize for her in the future. What it is she does not know. One horrific night, he tells her a fairytale about a Fair Maiden who helps a great king defy the horrors of death by killing him herself so that he dies rapturously in her hands. This, for him, would be his great gift. It horrifies Katya.

Impulsively, Katya does something that sets forth a horrible chain of events. She sees this as a throw of the dice, a saying that her grandfather Spivak used all the time to describe their lives. People do things without thinking and what comes out is like a throw of the dice when gambling. Katya is wrought with guilt but what she has done can not be undone.

Like many of Oates’s stories this one has a dark and gothic feel. It is like a Grimm fairy tale or a Tim Burton movie. The dark side predominates and the Spivaks are like many of the poor families we meet in Oates’s other novels. Oates has a wonderful way of superimposing the lives of the poor and the rich. We see the darkness of both worlds and the freedom that money affords the rich. However, all people are caught up in their own nightmares, no matter how much money they have.

This is a short novel, perhaps even a novella, at 165 pages. However, the way it catches a noir world it does not feel too short. Oates is a master story-teller and while this is not one of her best books, it is better than most books you’ll read.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 40 readers
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (January 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Joyce Carol Oates
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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January 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Coming-of-Age, Mystery/Suspense, Noir, y Award Winning Author

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