A Fair Maiden (2010)
Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)
INNOCENTLY IT BEGAN. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight.So opens Joyce Carol Oates’ slim novel A Fair Maiden; for readers of her earlier work, it will come as little surprise that the innocent beginning does not lead to an innocent end.
Mr. Kidder seeks out Katya as she stops to window shop during her walk to a nearby park with the two young children she is in charge of for the summer, as nanny for a well-to-do family on vacation in a small resort town on the Atlantic coast. He gently and carefully, but persistently pursues her, inviting her to his home with the children for tea, giving one of the children a book he turns out to have written and illustrated, and amazing Katya with his delicate works of art and musical ability. But misunderstanding and distrust arising from seemingly unbridgeable differences in cultural background, age and personality, mixed with the thrill and attraction of someone paying her so much attention, create a growing tension in Katya that must eventually find release --- suddenly and dramatically and with unexpected results. Given Katya as our narrator, we the readers can only share her confusion and uncertainty about Mr. Kidder’s intentions, fearing for her safety, but also intrigued by her new friend and his charming ways.
Similar themes of misunderstanding play out in Oates’ book of short stories that also appeared in 2010, Give Me Your Heart; this novel in fact has the feel of a story that was meant for that collection, but that grew beyond the constraints of a short story as she developed it.
Reading Oates’ novels and short stories it is hard not to either despair at the difficulty of two people truly being able to ever understand one another, or, to feel a deep relief in the belief (hope?) that we the reader at least do not suffer such a fundamental lack of understanding of those around us. And yet, especially in this election season, with what appear to be such large numbers of people screaming past each other in a frenzy to win their point --- red state versus blue state, rich versus poor, conservative versus liberal, urban versus rural --- the inability to reach a reasonable level of understanding between people as displayed by the characters in Oates’ stories can seem to be found around us at every turn.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION