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Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Fair Maiden

In A Fair Maiden, Joyce Carol Oates returns to the theme for which she is perhaps best known: a very young woman is being preyed upon by an older man interested only in using her for his own, less than honorable, purposes. Female characters created by Oates live in a world in which they can never afford to let their guards slip because, just when they begin to feel comfortable about their surroundings, a man will step from the shadows to yank them back into the brutal nature of the real world they inhabit.

Sixteen-year-old Katya Spivak is not exactly an innocent. Even before her father disappeared from her life, the Spivak family struggled to make it from one payday to the next. These days, her mother is much more interested in partying in Atlantic City than in holding a job. Katya may have come up the hard way but she resents those who look down on people like her and her family. Despite her feelings, she is spending the summer in an exclusive Jersey shore community as nanny to the children of a wealthy couple who seem determined to put as little cash in her pocket as possible.

Marcus Kidder, 68, is pretty much the last of the Kidder family to spend time in the community but he, and his surname, are well known there. Kidder was born into wealth but built a minor reputation for himself over the years as an artist and writer/illustrator of several children’s books. He begins a gentle courtship of Katya after spotting her on the street one morning with the two young children in her charge. Despite her suspicions about the old man, Katya is flattered enough by the attention of someone of his class and wealth that she visits his mansion for tea one afternoon.

The horror of A Fair Maiden comes from the cunning approach Marcus Kidder uses to gain Katya’s trust. Ever patient, never pushing too hard or too obviously, Kidder finally succeeds in getting Katya to pose for a portrait like the ones already hanging in the mansion. That, though, is just the beginning of what Kidder has in mind for his young friend and, almost despite herself, Katya at last finds herself posing nude. She tells herself, after all, that the cash Mr. Kidder pays her after each visit means that she is a professional model and this is what professional models do. But she is no match for a man like Marcus Kidder.

As the book reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that Katya’s understanding of how someone like her is seen by a man as wealthy and spoiled as Marcus Kidder is not far from the mark. Kidder is used to buying what he wants with no regard for the cost or the consequences. The question is what, exactly, does he want from Katya Spivak – and what it will cost both of them. A Fair Maiden comes in at only 165 pages but, because of its subject matter and the intensity of Oates’ prose, it is not an easy book to read. It is, however, vintage Joyce Carol Oates and few readers will see the ending coming before Ms. Oates is ready to reveal it to them.

Rated at: 4.5
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