Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bitter Heart

Judging solely by the bookstore or library shelf real estate her books occupy, I’d venture to say that Joyce Carol Oates is the thinking woman’s Danielle Steel. The seemingly inhuman amount of books she produces makes it nearly impossible for someone like me, a casual reader of hers, to do more than just scratch the surface of her body of work. I’ve enjoyed the past few books of hers that I’ve read, but found that the latest one I picked up, Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart, wasn't quite my favorite.

The premise of the novel is intriguing. Growing up in the midst of the racial tensions of a small town in the 1950’s, Iris Courtney is the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a gambler father. Continually moving to increasingly dismal apartments and new schools, Iris tries to fit in with her peers, but only marginally succeeds. Outwardly she adheres to the prejudices common among the other white students, her teachers, and her parents, but inwardly she doesn’t embrace their feelings. Iris begins to undertake small acts of rebellion, such as sneaking out to questionable parts of town late at night. It’s during one of these trips that she’s attacked by a white teenage boy, a member of one of the more troublesome families in town. Jinx Fairchild, a black teen with a promising academic and athletic career, intervenes in her defense and ends up killing the attacker. As the only witnesses, Iris and Jinx implicitly agree to keep quiet about the incident. The novel goes on to show the ways in which their secret haunts them as they move through their lives.

The novel is, of course, well written and, like many of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels, takes an interesting look at complex and potentially controversial subject matter. It fell short of my expectations, though, particularly in the latter half. After spending the first half of the book waiting to get to the climactic event of the attack, I thought that its aftershocks were handled with almost too much subtlety. Both Iris and Jinx go on to lead lives that are accepted paths for them: Iris goes on to college and becomes engaged while Jinx leaves his basketball career behind to start a family. There are incidents in both of their lives that appear as anomalies in their seemingly normal outward existences. It’s assumed that their behavior in these instances is motivated by the darker inner feelings they struggle with that stem from the secret of the murder, but the connection wasn’t always very apparent. It was the kind of book where vaguely explained character behavior left me thinking, “Okay, this must mean something”, but not finding as strong a meaning as I would have liked.

If you’re in the mood to read something by Joyce Carol Oates, this might not be my top recommendation. Now that I’ve narrowed that down, you only have about ninety-nine other novels of hers to choose from.


  1. She is prolific, isn't she? I have a co-worker who loves Ms. Oates and he pushes her books on me all the time. I just don't care for her writing, though. There is something too aggressive about her characters that drives me away.

    1. That's a great way of putting it. Her characters are generally quite aggressive. I think my tolerance for that depends a lot on my mood at the time of reading.



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