Joyce Carol Oates is my all-time favorite writer, and what I love about her is she writes a lot, which suits me because I read so much–I never run out of anything to read by my favorite author. I was salivating while waiting for my copy of her new book to come in at the library, My Sister, My Love. I knew it was a thinly veiled retelling of the JonBenet Ramsey case and looked forward to a domestic horror story, a form that Oates excels at.
It took me quite a while to warm up to this book. Once again Oates plays with one of her favorite themes–that of the double–but this time she applies it to the mother-child relationship, where children become an extension of their parents: I am you and you are me. This happens with an insecure, youngish, upwardly mobile housewife who first lavishes her attention, when she has it, on her firstborn Skyler, giving her mousy daughter Edna Louise the leftover crumbs. Skyler, however, fails to live up to the potential set for him by his parents Bix and Betsy Rampike, and it is Edna Louise who becomes the breakout star after putting on a borrowed pair of ice skates for a playdate. (The child becomes an ice-skating prodigy rather than a miniature beauty queen, as in the Ramsey case.) Betsy sees the Rampike family’s destiny in her young daughter, renames her Bliss, and starts training her hard, as if she were a racehorse and not a four-year-old. She becomes the terrorizing stage mother that has become a tabloid staple.
My Sister, My Love is told from the perspective of the older brother, Skyler Rampike, a nineteen-year-old who slips back in forth in time to recount what leads up to his sister’s murder and its aftermath. At times, the narrator’s voice strikes me as disingenuous. He’s awfully precocious for nineteen–or whatever age he is as he recounts his childhood–and since much of the satire must come out of his mouth, in the form of designer lifestyle drugs and illnesses and very obviously named SUVs (the Road Warrior XXL and the Reaper), it sounds a false note.
The narrator peppers the text with footnotes commenting on the story–to show his neurotic, obsessive frame-of-mind, I suppose–which reminded me too much of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (At least the notes were easily located on the page and not all found at the end of the book like with Infinite Jest.) I don’t like this meta- approach by Oates. I’ve come to depend on her for a good, meaty story and find this cleverness too much and overdone.