Some time ago, I read Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates. I did not give it a favorable review due to subject matter and personal dislikes within the actual writing. Afterward, I was not inclined to read another title by this author, until recently. Another of Oates’s titles, The Falls, came under discussion in one of my writing groups recently. A woman whose taste and opinions I admire greatly raved over it. When I told her about my first and only experience with an Oates title, she insisted that by reading The Falls, I would forever change my opinion of her work.
So I did…
And it didn’t. If anything, it reinforced my initial opinion.
It is 1950 and, after a disastrous honeymoon night, Ariah Erskine’s young husband throws himself into the roaring waters of Niagara Falls. Ariah, “The Widow Bride of the Falls,” begins a relentless seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for his body to be found. At her side is confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby, who is unexpectedly drawn to her. What follows is a passionate love affair, marriage, and family – a seemingly p0erfect existence. But tragedy soon takes over their lives, poisoning their halcyon years with distrust, greed, and murder.
Set against the mythic-historic backdrop of Niagara Falls in the mid-twentieth century, this haunting exploration of the American family in crisis is a stunning achievement from “one of the great artistic forces of our time.” (The Nation)
Let me say upfront, this title has an average Amazon rating of 3.8, while my rating comes in at an even 3-star review.
This book comes in at just under five-hundred pages for the paperback version. That would make it (in my opinion) roughly 200 pages too long. For what the story was, it could easily and preferably have been condensed to make it a more enjoyable, less over-inflated read. The reason it was so long: purple prose. I tried to stay tied to it even through the thick passages of overly done description, but it was hard. By page 300 or so, I will admit I began skimming the on-and-on-and-on that made it so hard to finish.
The main character, Ariah Littrel, Erskine, Burnaby was so flat she could have been a cardboard cutout inserted between the pages. In the ‘About the Book’ section following the story, the author refers to Ariah as being eccentric.
Eccentric: adj. (of a person or their behavior) unconventional or slightly strange.
Ariah isn’t slightly strange. She is ridiculously strange. She is mentally challenged. She is melodramatic. She is emotionally abusive to her children. She is paranoid. She is a lot of things, but slightly strange is a gross understatement.
There are many questions left unanswered when you come to the end of the book. Or maybe they were red herrings that leave the reader feeling cheated. Who knows, maybe they were loose ends the author didn’t bother to tie up. Whatever they were, they were annoying. One of the examples that annoyed me the most: Clarice, Dirk’s mother, tells Ariah following Chandler’s birth that they both know her son is not the baby’s father. That he can’t possibly be. She tells Ariah an unknown fact about her son that is meant to prove her knowledge of Chandler’s paternity. Ariah never admits or denies, nor does she mention this conversation to her husband leaving the reader to believe it is so. Yet, years later, Dirk and Ariah go on to have two more children. If he couldn’t have fathered one, how did he father two more? Unless the explanation occurred during my speed-reading of the last 200 pages, it was never addressed again. Another example was the woman in black who appeared at the cemetery with Royall. Was it the same woman in black that had dogged his father? And why did she seek him out? We were made to believe that Dirk never slept with her, so she wasn’t trying to recapture what she had with his father. A reason, however lame, would have given that scene a little validity.
Who killed Howell? Assuming he is dead (since he went missing) Stonecrop? Roy (Royall). Another item that wasn’t addressed.
At times, the book seems to wander with no direction. I read a review where someone said the sentence structure was odd. The story structure was odd in many places.
I was truly interested at the beginning of the book, even though it was description-heavy. She had me until Dirk’s murder. From there, I forced myself to read every word I didn’t skip over. I think the only thing that might have saved this book (as it was written), is if she had written a stronger lead character. Eccentric is Ann Margaret in Grumpy Old Men. When she comes out of the sauna and rolls around in the snow, or when she nearly climaxes while talking about art. Ariah was an extremely unlikable character who had my sympathy in the beginning, but lost it quickly.
Oates can write. I don’t intend for my review to take that away from her. But this particular title was overwritten. And bordered on strange, yet not as off-putting as Daddy Love. Shudder…. Would I take a chance on another of her titles? Twice shy, probably not.