The world portrayed in Joyce Carol Oates fiction is one filled with sudden violence, violence that more times than not comes at the expense of one of her female characters. The Female of the Species, a collection of nine stories, is indeed filled with violence but this time it is not the women who need to worry. Each of the nine stories shows what can happen when a woman decides that she has had enough of a man's abuse, infidelity, desertion and the like or when she gives in to her own sexual demons.
The book is subtitled "Tales of Mystery and Suspense" and that is not a false claim. Each of the stories is cloaked in mystery but the best of the nine shine because of the way that Oates gradually brings them to such a level of suspense that the reader can hardly wait to get to the last page to find all the answers. In "Hunger," the longest of the nine stories, and my favorite, a young wife and mother who seems to have it all, including a rich, older husband who spends more time working than with his family, meets a man on the beach and crazily becomes obsessed with him. Will she come to her senses before she makes a fatal mistake? Is her oblivious husband, a good man who truly loves his wife and daughter, in danger? As the suspense built and built, I completely lost myself in what is one of the best short stories that I've ever read.
The other eight stories are a bit uneven; some of them I will remember a long time for the tragic worlds in which they placed me for a few minutes and one or two others because they just did not work for me. The best of the stories somehow made me sympathetic to the women driven to violence despite the horror of what they were doing. Those included stories about women who respond to fears for their personal safety with violence of their own and stories of children driven to desperation by their mothers. But I found "Madison at Guignol" to be a surrealistic misfire that left me both repulsed by its descriptions of torture and confused by its message. And I was disappointed that "Angel of Mercy" did not offer any new insights into what causes a nurse to kill her patients rather than to watch them suffer slow and painful deaths.
That is the danger, I suppose, in a book that contains only nine stories. The ones that don't work out for the reader remain as memorable as the ones that do, forcing me to rate The Female of the Species at only a 3.0.