Sunday, November 11, 2012

Daddy Love

Joyce Carol Oates has an astounding way of getting inside the heads of sexual predators and their victims.  Hers is such a talent, in fact, that her darkest novels (and, with Oates, dark is a relative term because almost all of her novels can be called dark) are a challenge to a reader’s emotional sensitivities.  And, the author’s latest, Daddy Love, in which a five-year-old is violently snatched from his mother in a shopping center parking lot, is even more disturbing than most.

As Diane and Robbie walk through the mall parking lot, they play a game designed to teach the little boy to pay attention to his surroundings.  His mother is subtly guiding Robbie back to their car while asking him to help by telling her which way to turn and whether they are going in the right direction.  But the truth is that Diane is finding it difficult to remember exactly where she parked and, because she is so distracted by her own confusion, she never notices the man preparing to knock her down and steal away with her son.  Later, despite having been severely injured during her stunned efforts to save her son, Diane finds that she will second-guess herself for the rest of her life.

Their marriage will be so severely stressed by the loss of their only child that Diane and Whit Whitcomb will barely manage to stay together.  Through it all, Diane, even though battling physical and emotional trauma that will scar her forever, refuses to believe that Robbie will not one day come home.  Years later, she is still waiting for the magical phone call announcing that her son has been recovered from his abductor.

Robbie’s kidnapper is Chester Cash, a serial child-abductor who insists that his victims call him Daddy Love.  Cash, a part-time preacher and full-time ladies man, is brilliantly evil.  He disguises his contempt for women so well that he easily manipulates a string of lonely and insecure ones to do his dirty work – from cleaning his pig sty of a house, to doing his laundry, to giving him their money – all the while, playing mind-games with his young victims that turn them into willing victims for years at a time. 

(Credit: Star Black)
Cash’s usual routine of rape and torture, followed by rewards for pleasing him, works until Robbie begins to comprehend why Daddy Love’s earlier victims have all disappeared.  He figures out that around age twelve, which Robbie is fast approaching, Cash will no longer find him sexually appealing.  If he is going to survive, Robbie has to make his escape soon because he is running out of time.

The most horrifying aspect of Daddy Love is the novel’s portrayal of the effectiveness of brainwashing suffered by young victims at the hands of sexual perverts.  Robbie, because he becomes so dependent on Daddy Love for his physical and emotional wellbeing, never makes a break for freedom or cries for help despite having ample opportunity to do so.  He simply cannot imagine a life without Daddy Love.  Oates, by telling Daddy Love’s story from both his and Robbie’s viewpoints, shows how a child’s innocence is so easily and completely overwhelmed by an adult evil enough to want to do so.

Not easy to read, and even harder to forget, Daddy Love is a reminder of the shadow world that threatens our children…a world parents cannot afford to ignore.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. What a terrific review of a most disturbing book and topic. I've read several of Oates's books and think she is amazing.
    The situation of the marriage falling apart as a result of the abduction reminds me very much of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time where the same thing happens. The marriage cannot survive the parents' grief of losing their child.
    Thank you for this review, Sam.

  2. Cip, "Daddy Love" is cringe-worthy reading in a good realistic and disturbing that I had to put it aside every so often because I couldn't take the story in large doses. Oates writes this kind of thing as well as anybody ever has.

  3. How does she do it? It's a question that's been with me for so many years and one that intensified after reading Zombie.

  4. I don't know how Ms. Oates does it, Susan. You would never know by looking at this tiny person that she has all that inside her...and the great talent to scare the rest of us to death with her insights into sexual predators. I just finished her new short story collection, "Black Dahlia & White Rose," and she does it again.

  5. Yikes, very tough subject matter but it sounds a brilliant novel.