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The widow bride of Niagara

In Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel, no one can resist the water

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You can't help pitying the people who show up in the novels of Joyce Carol Oates. From the first page, you sense that they're going to be known to death, literally splayed by her insight. And before you realize it, she's done the same thing to us. For 40 years, she's coyly enticed us with the gothic details of ordinary life and then - when it's too late - pinned us on the sharp point of her wisdom.

I read "The Falls," her latest novel, in what seemed like one held breath. Set around Niagara, the story reflects all the romance, mystery, and terror of that spectacular waterfall. It's a great confluence of tones - grotesque and domestic, tragic and comic. The currents of various styles and points of view blend together in a way that can't possibly work, but does.

How else to begin at Niagara Falls but with a honeymoon - and a suicide? Ariah Littrell's desperation to be married had reached a fever pitch, which is pretty much the mental condition she maintains for the rest of her life. Though she's terrified of sex and disgusted by her own body, at 29 "she would have gladly traded her soul for an engagement ring," Oates writes. The daughter of a prominent minister, she's thrilled to be marrying another minister, even if she doesn't really love him, even if she knows he can't love her, "an old maid."

The morning after their first night together - an evening of consummate humiliation - her new husband answers the call of the roaring water outside their bridal suite and throws himself over. It's a classic Oates moment - hypnotically awful, the kind of slow-motion disaster you can't take your eyes off.

Ariah, long determined to be the perfect wife, immediately recasts herself as "The Widow Bride of the Falls," maintaining a seven-day vigil while police search for her new husband's body.

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