Good For You Oates

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.

Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

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.

Missing Mom by Joyce Carol Oates

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.

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14 thoughts on “Good For You Oates

    • Jenny — well I thought the book was well done, but it just didn’t grab me. Of course, I think it’s her best-rated book on Goodreads, so I think I’m in the minority. I’d be curious about what you think.

  1. I haven’t read these two novels by Oates, but thinking of Marilyn Monroe—she seems to have become more of a symbol or icon upon which a thousand writers and critics have hung their own interpretations of American pop culture. I saw her two serious films, “Bus Stop” and “The Misfits,” and really enjoyed her performances in those. “Some Like It Hot” and “The Seven-Year Itch,” not so much: I dislike the dumb-blonde stereotype that she did so much to create. Also, in reading the myriad biographies written about her, I think there’s a pile of bad journalism and rumor stacked around Monroe that prevents anyone from knowing whom she really was. I wonder if Oates has simply added to the pile—or do you think she’s clarified the actress’ personality for the reader?

    • HG — it’s a really good question. I have never read any other Monroe biographies, though I’ve seen a couple of retrospectives on tv. I think JCO tried to “humanize” her — describe the person behind the fame. Was this based on any sort of reality or research? You got me. As a historical figure though, Monroe doesn’t hold much interest for me.

  2. Thanks for this Steve, because I’ve been intrigued by Carol-Oats for a while now. Touching to hear about your parents. Isn’t’ it eye opening know an elderly couple and see them when they were much younger. Time marches on for all of us.

    I admit I rarely read life novels, I need something to actually happen in the material world in fiction. Maybe I get bored or uncomfortable reading an analysis of someone’s life. That probably sounds snotty. Sorry.

  3. Missing Mom sounds an interesting read – might give it a try sometime. I probably won’t go near the other one as biographies of any kind are not really my thing.

    Great post.

    • Thanks, loustar — I’m not much into biography either and really only read this one because it was Oates. Oddly enough, I think it’s her highest rated book on Goodreads, so go figure.

  4. I recently saw an old photo of my dad as an 18-year-old, dancing on top of his car. It came as a shock to see Dad behaving so unlike Dad :) – I think it was the first time it really hit home that my parents were young people too once, with young people’s hopes and dreams and laughter and silliness. Those young people may be hidden inside the adult shells you see on the outside, but I realised that they’re very much there. Oates’ book sounds very interesting. I will look for it, though I am nervous about the emotional impact it may have on me :)

    • LC — I have a picture upstairs of my grandfather in his 20s with his basketball team from the 1920s. I never even knew my grandfather, but I can see my dad (and brother) in him. It’s pretty remarkable.

      I very much like Oates’ writing — I find it very human and emotional without being overly dramatic.

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