The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 29 April 2002


by Joyce Carol Oates

Monica, a 29 year-old woman, is freshly divorced, and starting her life again as a teacher in a small-town private school for boys in Pennsylvania. Sheila Trask is an enigmatic 42 year-old widow of a famous artist, her own art now rising in notoriety. Monica and Sheila form an unlikely enough friendship in the clubby atmosphere of this affluent suburban town. Sheila is erratic, vibrant, gloomy, drug addled and obsessed by her art. Monica is mousy and quiet, given over to her teaching and regular dinners with the other members of the community. Why they are drawn together is unclear. Sheila drains vital energy from Monica, but Monica is equally obsessed by the free-spirited life that Sheila leads. In support of an upcoming show, Sheila is putting together some new paintings. Monica helps her out, but much to the detriment of Monica's own physical and emotional well-being. In a labyrinth of mutual obsession, both the protagonists exchange personal strength back and forth. Monica pays a price for helping out Sheila. And Sheila, aloof and obscure, might eventually learn how important this friendship is to herself. The suburban and genteel setting of this book reminds me much of John Updike. Oates, however, writes from a notably feminine perspective here. It is a short book, emotionally rich but occasionally impressionistic and opaque. It is a good book, but perhaps one hard to like. It is a darkly obsessive relationship that Oates describes, unfamiliar and intense.

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