A Fair Maiden, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest tale of a teenage girl beset by a world that doesn’t have her best interests at heart, meanders for a long while before reaching a conclusion that rises to a curious level of gothic intensity. It’s odd to say that a 165-page book meanders, but that’s the predominant impression the early going gives, as Oates portrays the sinuous web the elderly Marcus Kidder weaves for 16-year-old ingénue Katya Spivak, out of her element and well above her class as the nanny for a well-off family living on the New Jersey coast.
Oates loves to tell tales about girls who fall under the influence of older men, but she increasingly seems to have less and less sense of how a modern teenager’s interior monologue might sound. Much of Katya’s dialogue sounds roughly like what hectoring parents might say to their sullen children while attempting to get them interested in a museum or other educational roadside attraction: “Can you imagine a time without iPods?”
As usual, though, Oates pulls her various strands together in the end. All the assorted hints and clues she’s been dropping come together in a conclusion that’s horrifying in its intensity, as Katya is mislead by both Marcus and an old boyfriend, and dropped into a hellish nightmare where Oates casually ratchets up the tension and creates conflicting sympathies as though it were easy.
But too much of what goes before in the novel might have worked better as a short story. The book can only support so many scenes where Katya can’t imagine how anyone would ever find her beautiful, or where she tries to solve the mysteries of Marcus’ past. It doesn’t help that Marcus, with his mysterious past and his attempts to buy off the young girl, is infinitely more interesting than point-of-view character Katya.
In the end, A Fair Maiden may be best viewed as a story about class tensions, about the ways poor people may try to blend in with rich people, while never feeling as though they truly belong. Marcus represents the siren song of wealth beyond care; he can essentially buy whatever he wants, including the love of a young girl. Katya, by contrast, represents the reality of having to wonder where the next paycheck is coming from, of living a life where you can count on no one but yourself. As straightforward narrative, it can be boring. As symbolism, it’s surprisingly ripe.