CARTHAGE by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Quote:

“Shouting himself hoarse, sweat-soaked and exhausted— ‘Cressida! Honey! Can you hear me? Where are you?’

He’d been a hiker, once. He’d been a man who’d needed to get away into the solitude of the mountains that had seemed to him once a place of refuge, consolation. But not for a long time now. And not now.

In this hot humid insect-breeding midsummer of 2005 in which Zeno Mayfield’s younger daughter vanished into the Nautauga State Forest Preserve with the seeming ease of a snake writhing out of its desiccated and torn outer skin. “

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (FEB 28, 2014)

Carthage is quintessential Oates. It is stylistically similar to many of her other books with the utilization of parentheses, repetitions and italics to make the reader take note of what is important and remind us of what has transpired previously. The book is good but it is not Oates’ best.

As the novel opens, the Mayfield family resides in Carthage, New York in the Adirondacks. Zeno Mayfield, once mayor of Carthage, and a political bigwig in a smallish town is the head of the family. His wife, Arlette, along with his two daughters, form the whole. Juliet, 22 years old is the “beautiful” daughter and Cressida, 19 years old is the “smart” one. Juliet is still living at home and she is an obeisant and sweet child, a devout Christian. She is engaged to marry Brett Kincaid, an Iraqi war hero who has been seriously injured in battle. He has suffered head injuries and walks with a cane. His face is badly scarred and he suffers from myriad problems requiring many psychotropic medications. However, Juliet’s love for him has never faltered. She drives him to rehab and stands by his side in all ways.

Cressida is the “difficult” child, always a loner and finds it difficult to look others in the eyes. Her parents have wondered at times if there is something wrong with her. She finds solace in drawing pictures reminiscent of M.C. Escher. She does not like people and is witty but sarcastic, cruel at times. She wears primarily black, avoids colors, and does not smile for the camera; for one day, she says, her photo will be her obituary photograph. She is an impulsive student in high school, doing very well in some classes and poorly in others because she thought the teachers did not like or respect her. She ends up going to St. Lawrence University where she lives mostly inside her head, continuing to be a loner, an “intellectual.”

In the book’s beginning pages there is an allusion to Brett’s temper and the fact that he has hit Juliet. She, however, has covered up for him by stating that she bumped her face.

Brett breaks his engagement to Juliet who is heart-broken. Secretly, Cressida is in love with him and one night she goes to a bar to see Brett who is not happy to see Cressida at all. He is drunk and Cressida gets drunk as well. He offers to drive her home but she never gets there. There is evidence of a struggle in the car – blood on the windshield and some witnesses who saw them arguing outside the car. What happened to Cressida? There is a huge search and eventually Brett confesses to having killed her despite the fact that Cressida’s body is never found even after a comprehensive and ongoing search.

Oates does a remarkable job of examining the fallout of Cressida’s death/disappearance on her family and the community of Carthage. Zeno never gives up hope that his daughter is still alive. Arlette becomes more involved in her church and volunteer activities, working on forgiveness and moving on with her life. Juliet is never the same due to the circumstances surrounding Cressida’s disappearance. Additionally, the reader is privy to the horrors of the Iraqi war including subsequent injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers incur. Brett Kinkaid’s life is explored in depth before and after his deployment.

Thus we have the foundation for the novel. On another level, it is not likely a coincidence that Ms. Oates chose the characters’ names at random. Zeno is a famous pre-Socratic philosopher who is known for his paradox of never reaching one’s destination. If you are going somewhere and divide your destination by half, half of the distance will always remain. There is quite a bit about Plato, Sophocles and the early Greeks in this book. Juliet, of course, is the star-crossed lover in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. Cressida is also a character in a play by Shakespeare. However, “Cressida has most often been depicted by writers as ‘false Cressida,’ a paragon of female inconstancy,” according to Wikipedia.

The novel has some fascinating turns but, ultimately, it did not ring true to me. I can’t go into specifics without giving spoilers so I will leave it at that.

I try to read as much Oates as I can but she seems to write faster than I can read. She an an amazing and prolific writer. Even when she is not at her best, she is extraordinarily good.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 75 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco (January 21, 2014)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Joyce Carol Oates
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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February 28, 2014 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Family Matters, Mystery/Suspense, NE & New York