I’m a big fan of Joyce Carol Oates, so when I discovered she had a new book out, I was excited. I was even happier when I found that it was another volume in the gothic family saga series she started many years ago with ‘Bellefleur’, which is one of my favorite books. The 660 page length didn’t bother me; she’s an author who, at her best, can fill that many pages with brilliance. I greeted the book like it was a big box of candy.
I’m afraid I was disappointed. There are a lot of good things in the book-an extended patrician family living in Princeton is cursed. Voices say bad things to people, ghosts are seen, a shape shifting demon walks among them and leads them into tragedies. At the same time, they have to deal with the demons of their everyday life: racism, misogyny, classism, the Machiavellian politics of Princeton University. I liked having a narrator who only knew the story through the diaries and papers he discovered long after the events took place. Half the population of the book are real people: Woodrow Wilson is president of Princeton U, Grover Cleveland and his wife are part of the social circle, Upton Sinclair has a large part devoted to him, Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain all make appearances. But the lessons about society are a little heavy handed, and I’m really not sure that some of the historical characters added to the story. Upton Sinclair and Jack London didn’t seem to be connected to the family and the curse but took up a lot of pages. The only way I could see that they added to the story was by showing the reader what the attitudes of people of the time were, but I know enough history that I didn’t need that and I’m sure there are many other readers like me.
Oates has written a great story, but every story needs an editor. At least a hundred pages could have been cut without the story losing anything and the book would have been much sharper. I enjoyed the book, but got impatient with it frequently.