While I’ve certainly not read all of Joyce Carol Oates’s work, I’d be willing to say that her work isn’t joyous. And this book takes the lack of joy- the lack to *any* form of happiness- to nose bleeding heights.
Clara is born into misery. Her parents are migrant fruit pickers in the Great Depression. They own nothing and live in shacks on the farms for a few weeks before moving on. They can never make enough to escape this life. Her father copes by drinking, fighting, beating his wife and kids (except for Clara), and committing adultery. Constant pregnancy eventually kills her mother. This doesn’t change much; Clara has been taking care of the younger siblings for years. One evening in ‘town’ she meets an unusual man- one who doesn’t want to have sex with her. She stays out late, and when she returns to her shack, her father brutally beats her. She runs away, and with this man’s help, starts a new life with a room of her own, a bed of her own, and a job at a dime store. This is luxury beyond anything she’s ever known.
Her life becomes one of securing her place in the world. In her quest she loses friends and is scorned by all, but gains financial security and doesn’t care a bit. All her life, she is defined by both men- her father, her boyfriend, her husband, her son- and by her lust for *things*; clothing, furniture, jewelry. In a humanizing touch, she is also an avid gardener, reveling in planting and weeding and pruning, even after she has enough money that she could afford to hire someone. It seems to be her single creative outlet or interest. She’s not a bad person, despite what the townspeople think; she’s just very driven to never be like her parents. She learns to read on her own, and watches other people to learn how to behave.
The prose, despite the grim subject especially in the first part of the book, is brilliant to read. The brutal lives the migrants are living comes vividly, frighteningly, alive. Clara is mostly a sympathetic character. Of course she makes mistakes, some of which have horrible consequences, but she does the best she can in a bad situation. This could have been a depressing read, but for the most part it’s not; it’s oddly uplifting to see Clara make a life for herself and her son.
Note: I read the original 1966 version, not the updated one.