Joyce Carol Oates

"The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann JAN 29, 2006)

Joyce Carol Oates has had the adjective "prolific" attached to her name for so long that some may forget that she is also one of America's most accomplished writers.  Her versatility has earned her accolades not only for her literary fiction, but for her nonfiction and forays into genres such as horror, mystery, and romance.  In The Female of the Species, Oates has compiled a solid collection of her tales of suspense and violence.  These nine stories portray women at their most murderous, motivated by passion, desperation, righteousness, or just plain nastiness. 

One of the most chilling tales is "Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi," a story about perpetually eleven-year old Doll, a shrewd child prostitute prone to "mean moods."  As Oates says in the opening lines, "What happened between Ira Early and his (step)daughter Doll is a secret between them of long standing. What has happened to x number of men as a result of this secret is more public."   Oates plunges into the psyches of both Doll and Ira, exposing the deranged and macabre relationship between the two:  what keeps them together and what divides them. 

"Hunger" is equally memorable, although less for its actual violence than for the way Oates develops the story of a woman hungry for passion.  Kristine is vacationing on Cape Cod with her six year old daughter when she meets a mysterious, perhaps homeless, stranger, Jean-Claude, on the beach.  Her workaholic husband has refused to accompany them on vacation, and so Kristine feels the freedom of escaping his bland, self-involved presence.  When Jean-Claude begins to show up at the upscale parties thrown in Kristine's circle, he becomes legitimate, vetted by others, and Kristine finds herself driven to possess him.  But her actions have repercussions she does not expect:  "That moment, That insight.  Flaring like pain.  When Kristine will think, I've made the worst mistake of my life."

"The Haunting" focuses on the horrifying hallucinations (or are they?) of a girl whose mother is said to have burned her father alive.  The more experimental "Angel of Mercy" entwines the lives of a long-dead, infamous nurse with the youngest nurse of the ward nicknamed "the City of the Damned."  "So Help Me God," the story of a woman prompted to take action against her controlling husband after receiving a series of anonymous calls, is less successful, primarily because the motivation Oates provides is more overlaid than deep-seated in the protagonist.

Each story is this collection varies enough from the others to keep the reader's attention through one sitting or many.  While Oates's characters might not always seem to be capable of the atrocities they commit, the suspense she builds holds everything together.  The most engrossing stories have the momentum of inevitability, where both the reader and the characters know where events are heading but from which neither can tear herself away.  Reading these stories is like being caught in a car without brakes; you know you will crash, but you don't know what will finally stop you. 

  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Female of the Species at Harcourt

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Joyce Carol OatesJoyce Carol Oates was born in 1938 and grew up in upstate New York. While a scholarship student at Syracuse University, she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest. She graduated as valedictorian, then earned an M.A. at the University of Wisconsin. In 1968, she began teaching at the University of Windsor. In 1974, her and husband founded Ontario Review. In 1978, she moved to New Jersey to teach creative writing at Princeton University, where she is now the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities.

A prolific writer, having written some 70 books, Joyce Carol Oates has produced some of the most controversial, and lasting, fiction of our time. Her novel, them, set in racially volatile 1960s Detroit, won the 1970 National Book Award. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart focused on an interracial teenage romance. Black Water, a narrative based on the Kennedy-Chappaquiddick scandal, garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and her national bestseller Blonde, an epic work on American icon Marilyn Monroe, became a National Book Award Finalist. Although Joyce Carol Oates has called herself, "a serious writer, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists," her novels have enthralled a wide audience. After being picked for an Oprah Book at the start of 2001, We Were the Mulvaneys earned the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, the first time any of her books reached the spot, though most have been critically acclaimed. Joyce Carol Oates has been twice-nominated for the Noble Prize in literature. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014