Thursday, November 03, 2005

"One day, in a way unique to you, this will be your story."


Any frequent visitors to this site know that Joyce Carol Oates is probably my favorite author. Her most recent novel only confirms and deepens the fascination that began long ago when I first read the National Book Award winner, them. Many of the characters in Missing Mom, are so real and unique, you can practically see the pores in their skin, hear them breathing in the dark.

And as in any Oates novel, there's a lot of darkness for the characters to inhale. The "Mom" of the title is not missed because she moved away, or died peacefully in her bed. Not in Oates country. She is brutally murdered in her garage, victimized by both a meth head with empty eyes and her own trusting nature.

But the murder is only a vehicle to draw your attention to Oates' real subject: the nature of being a daughter.

The novel begins on Mother's day when the hip young protagonist endures dinner at her mother's suburban ranch house. Though Nikki Eaton is clearly "fond" of her mother, her condescension toward the middle-aged Gwen, who is compelled to invite lonely strays and backbiting aunts to every celebration, toward the claustrophobic house where she grew up, and her mother's carefully coordinated "outfits" and special recipes is obvious. Nikki is eager to get away--back to her own adventurous life as a journalist with a married lover.

The true shock that Nikki endures is not the sight of her mother's bloody body in the garage, it is the depth of their connection, the way that "Missing Mom" undermines everything she thinks she knows about herself and the world. And oddly, it is only after her mother is dead that Nikki gets beyond the mother she clung to and rebelled against and took for granted at various stages of her life, and sees her mother for who she is. A girl who overcame her own traumatic past. A young mother. A middle aged woman busily filling her calendar with good deeds and breadmaking. A woman who spoke optimistically about everything, but in actuality, saw life dead on.

It is Nikki's discovery of who her mother truly was and how they are entangled, mother and daughter, in a knot that can never totally be undone, that provides the gripping plot of this novel, more than the violence or the love affairs.

The startling truth of that quote from the beginning of the novel is what makes it one of Oates' best novels:

One day in a way unique to you, this will be your story, too.

Yes, one day, if it hasn't already happened, you will be surprised by death. Surprised by the complexity and intensity of your love. Surprised by how much you failed to see, to savor, to acknowledge when it was still in your grasp. It just seems to work that way.


Myfanwy Collins said...

She is a marvel. This book sounds great. I'll look for it. Did you read the story of hers that was in BASS this year? It was quite touching.

Anonymous said...

You're taking part in NaNoWriMo and you're still finding time to blog?

You put me to shame!

rdl said...

Wow you outdid yourself again, great post! You are single handedly going to keep the bookstores in business. Adding yet another to the incredibly long list.

Sharon Hurlbut said...

Splendid review. I can remember my mom reading Oates when I was very small and talking about what a revolutionary writer she was. She is truly an amazingly gifted and prolific writer. I may have to get this book (when NaNo is over).

Patry Francis said...

Myfanwy: the new one--2006? I haven't gotten that yet. But I think you've just suggested an excellent use for an Amazon gift certificate I've been hanging onto.

Sinead: I'm trying to keep up with it all, though my house is in a shambles, and I'm losing friends at a rapid rate since I haven't been returning phone calls. By Dec. 1, I should be certifiable.

R: Wish I could do something to help the ailing book business with my little blog, but I don't think so. Thanks for the kind thought though!

Sharon: It's clear that you have a very cool mom!

MB said...

Losing a mother is a process of discovery.

Patry, do you sleep? NaNoWriMo, blogging, reading, book reviews... I'm in awe of your energy, or else your efficiency. Or else your ability to get by on a few hours of sleep.

Matt said...

Wow. Even the review gave me chills. I'd sworn off Oates because of her overwhelming and intimidating prodigiousness a while back, but this has got me reconsidering.

On the topic of that prodgiousness itself, I'm convinced that she's actually three different people. (Yes, the three names was my first clue . . .) I mean how could one person write all those books and still provide the honey-dripping harmonies on such hits as "Private Eyes" and "Maneater"?

Myfanwy Collins said...

It's in the 2005 Michael Chabon one. I think the story was in Harper's originally. It was great. And I read it while I was waiting to get my car inspected and if it could hold my interest in the dingy garage waiting room, then... you know. It was good.

Patry Francis said...

moose: Thanks, but I'm actually extremely lazy and scattered. Reading and blogging are my form of recreation--beats TV anyday. Nano, on the other hand, is a bit of work and I'm protesting every step of the way.

finnegan: thanks for your "kickass" comment. It left me smiling for hours.

And when I wasn't smiling, I was laughing about Matt Getty's comment about the J.C.O. singing harmonies on Maneater. No wonder people question my sanity.

Myfanwy: Actually, a dingy garage waiting room is the perfect place for reading an Oates story.

robin andrea said...

This is beautiful, Patry. You make me want to read Joyce Carol Oates again. I too gave up on her a while back.
When I was in college, I took a lit class called "Mothers and Daughters in Literature." We read some fine novels, and it sounds like this one would fit right in.
One thing I learned from that class is that not all women are mothers, but all have been daughters. It's an interesting commonality I had not considered.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, and beautiful timing. I am writing my nano novel about the irreplaceable nature of the mother-daughter relationship.

Patry Francis said...

R.D. Wish I could have taken that mothers and daughters class with you. I think we would have had some fine chats.

Debra: Great subject matter, and it's never exhausted. Every parent/child relationship is its own unique story.