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.