During my interview with Kelly (which you should check out because it was really fun) and a recent conversation with Tom and Bookish, my affection for the books of Joyce Carol Oates came up. That made me realize that I had a couple of her books in my “to review” list.
Blonde is a fictionalized biography (I suppose that you could refer to it as historical fiction) of that most famous of blondes, Marilyn Monroe. The book covers her life as the child of a mentally-ill mother, her time as an orphan, and her rise to celebrity. The book is presented as a first person recollection.
Oates’ Monroe is a dream-filled, naïve woman that only wants to do her best and seems as surprised as anyone by her own rise to stardom and is almost an innocent bystander in her descent into booze and drugs. Her most famous relationships – DiMaggio, Arthur Miller and Kennedy are obscurely referred to as “The Ex-Athlete,” “The Playwright,” and “The President” – and in many ways she is “The Famous Actress” – another shady nameless figure controlling her life.
The language and writing craft was all there, of course, but I’ve never been a big biography reader, and I’ve never been obsessed with Marilyn Monroe as many are. I’ve seen a couple of her movies, but never “got” the fascination. Maybe for these reasons, I never quite connected with Marilyn – or Norma – with the way that I have connected with Oates’ fictional creations.
Three stars out of five
Missing Mom was a novel written in the aftermath of Oates’ own mother’s death. In it, Nikki Eaton, a sexually promiscuous “free spirit” in her early 30s deals with the unexpected death of her mother, who was a pillar in her upstate New York town.
In Nikki and in Chataqua Falls, Oates returns to the types of characters and places that have defined so much of her writing. A somewhat directionless woman, who is often the object of others actions and priorities: her mother’s ministrations, her controlling sister’s judgments, her married lover’s availability.
Her mother’s death puts all of Nikki’s personal relationships into a crucible as she deals with her paralyzing shock and grief. And as Nikki evaluates those around her and herself, perhaps most importantly, she begins to consider how well she did (and did not) know her own mother.
It’s this aspect of the story – wondering how well can we know anyone: a parent, a sibling, a lover – that I found the most compelling. I found myself thinking of my own parents’ deaths. I think I knew my parents pretty well, but I certainly didn’t know them when they were in their 20s and 30s – what were their dreams and desires. In their retirement, I thought they were happy (mostly), but a book like this makes you wonder what unvoiced thoughts were there. A missed dream or a surprise joy.
Nikki Eaton was clearly a reflection of Oates’ own grief following her mother’s death, but the strength of the novel comes from her ability to become a lens through which we scrutinize our own ideas, feelings and assumptions.
Four stars out of five.