A Fair Maiden – Joyce Carol Oates

It has been a quiet reading week. I’m slowly making my way through Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears. It’s a mystery set in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not normally my favourite type of book but so far it’s very good – and long. I seem to have been reading steadily and am still only a third of the way through. I have to confess to have been sidetracked by the Twilight book which I wasn’t planning on reading but one of the girls at work bought it in so I started it.. and am loving it!

I have also been having a few site problems this week which have been a bit frustrating. I’ve noticed these seem to be on all the blogs I read with the same template so hopefully this is a wordpress problem that will be resolved soon.

I was pleased to find A Fair Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates in the new books section of the library yesterday. Oates is an author I have been meaning to try for a while, this book at 231 pages seemed like a good place to start.

The writing was really easy to read, the chapters quite short and it was a definite page turner. It was also quite an uncomfortable read.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of Katya Spivak. Katya is 15 years old and working as a nanny for the summer in an affluent suburb of New Jersey. She is young but not totally innocent with a few ‘bad habits’ and having grown up without much support from her father who gambled before disappearing and her mother who likes to drink. Her background and the shame she carries with her are pivotal to the choices she later makes.

Out one day with the children and gazing in an expensive lingerie shop window, she is approached from behind by an older, white haired man with a cane and piercing blue eyes – Marcus Kidder.

“And what would you choose, if you had your wish?”

And here starts the inappropriate and creepy relationship between the two. Katya knows that this 68 year old man has designs on her but is ambivalent to his advances. She is physically repulsed but attracted to his sophistication, his culture and especially his wealth. Marcus Kidder has an ocean front house, plays the piano, is a writer of childrens books and has a house filled with his work, unusual glass flowers and walls adorned with portraits of beautiful girls and women – Katya, he tells her is to be his next subject.

He also speaks of special mission for Katya. Not to be revealed quite yet. Handsomely rewarded… Despite telling herself and him her answer is no, she finds herself unable to stay away…

Despite it’s fairly light approach, this is a story of abuse. Marcus Kidder presents himself and is received by Katya as a type of fairy god father – he is the only person that loves Katya and will always take care of her. This is enormously attractive to a girl from the poorer side of town with little security. Yes there are strings attached and the scary thing I think is that Katya could see these strings but was not able to resist the rewards that came with them.

I liked the writing and was totally absorbed in the story. I’m not sure how believable I found it all, which is probably a good thing or it could have all been a bit disturbing.

I will be looking out for more of Joyce Carol Oates books. Wikipedia tells us that Oates would recommend first time readers to start with Them or Blonde. Perhaps I will look for one of these next.

2010, 231 pages


10 responses to “A Fair Maiden – Joyce Carol Oates

  1. I am a big J.CO fan but I wasn’t sure about this book…good to know that you would recommend it.

    I definitely don’t recommend starting with Them OR Blonde…but I do recommend My Sister My Love or especially We Were the Mulvaneys. Blonde is…a little tough to handle if you aren’t used to Oates’s cray-cray. Plus, I don’t think the plot is that interesting.


    -Connie @ Constance-Reader

    • Connie – thank you for the recommendation, that’s really helpful. As this is my first of her books I’m not sure if choosing an off beat subject is usual for her or not. I look forward to finding out!

      I hope you enjoy A Fair Maiden when you get to read it 0:)

  2. I’ve been meaning to try JCO for a while now, she always comes highly recommended. Will have to see what my library stocks!


    • Kat – yes she’s one of those authors that I kept hearing about as well so I’m pleased to have tried her. I think I will need to read something else of hers before I decided one way or the other, I defintely like her story telling ability.

      Good luck with the libarary stock! 0:)

  3. I’ve read a few JCO books, but hadn’t heard of this one. Of the ones I read, I liked We Were the Mulvaneys and didn’t really care for The Gravedigger’s Daughters. She’s written a ton of books, so there’s a lot to choose from. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.


    • Anna – thank you for these recommendations. I’m going to look out for We Were the Mulvaneys. I read that she is a prolific writer and I must admit to having seen quite a few of her books in the library – so yes, lots of choices!

  4. I didn´t know there was a proper place to start 😉 I´ve read three of her works I think and love her writing. I think the first one I read was “Rape. A Love Story” which I can really recommend.

    • Bina – Good point and everybody’s starting place could be different 0:) I read a glowing review of Rape. A Love Story somewhere else so will look out for it. Thank you for the recommendation.

  5. I just finished JCO’s A Fair Maiden which I discovered while looking for something interesting to read at the library. This is the first book that I’ve read by JCO and though I’m very impressed by her style of writing, the subject matter is quite disturbing. I was repulsed by Katya and Mr. Kidder’s actions but I pity them as well. I think on some level, we all can relate to the characters’ yearn and need for love yet we find the sexual relationship between the dying 68- year old man and a 15/16 year-old troubled girl very tabooed. I would recommend this book for it’s a beautifully written book. The subject matter is not for those with a weak stomach. I will continue to read her other books. Thanks for the recommendations.

    • Jill – thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that the subject was pretty awful but the writing beautiful. Now that a few months have gone by since I read it I still plan to search out other books by JCO (there appear to be a lot to choose from) but I have to admit that right now they’re not at the top of my wish list. I hope you enjoy the ones you read.

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