Joyce Carol Oates at Her Scary Best with Daddy Love

The last couple of Joyce Carol Oates books that I read I haven’t loved (Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You and My Sister, My Love), and one from last year, Mudwoman, I couldn’t even finish. I had been particularly looking forward to Mudwoman because it was billed as a horror novel, my favorite, but I got one hundred pages in and nothing had really happened—I hated it—so I had to put it away. I was disheartened and did not immediately put her newest titles on hold because I was afraid of being disappointed. Oates has been my favorite writer for about twenty years, and I didn’t want anything to threaten her status. But then I heard what Daddy Love, her newest, was about—familiar JCO territory—and I had to read it.


Daddy Love starts off with every parent’s nightmare, their child being abducted, but instead of being a slam, bang beginning, the novel starts incredibly slow with the abduction being told and retold three times by the mother with slight variations. I knew that Oates had a purpose for this—she’s an experimental writer—but I don’t think today’s editor would have the patience to let a first-time writer get away with this. Those three chapters would probably be labeled repetitive, and if the writer wanted to be published, he or she would have to cut these and beef up the more seamy material in the book.

Daddy Love represents the whole horrific experience of a child abduction. A parent who has a child ripped from his or her arms would most likely repeat that last memory with the child over and over again, trying to figure out how the event could have been prevented (if they allow themselves to remember it). These three repeating chapters and the cover of Daddy Love serve as fair warning to how dark the material of this novel is, and there’s plenty of time for the reader to get out of it.


Once the mother has exhausted herself, trying to figure out how she could have prevented the abduction of her five-year-old son, the novel jumps to Daddy Love, a charismatic part-time reverend who pedals his good looks and women’s attraction to him in order to get them to cater to him and his sons. Daddy Love carefully hunts for each of his victims, believing that God reveals the special boy to him and he is saving the child from an awful parent. The child must be old enough so he can take care of his needs, but he must be young enough so he’s attractive to Daddy Love and his mind can be molded. Daddy Love’s latest son Deuteronomy has become too old, and that’s why the reverend got rid of him and sought out Robbie, who Daddy Love renames Gideon after carefully breaking him through one of many tortures. The problem with Daddy Love is that the torture never ends.

Daddy Love turned into a freezer book for me. I got to a part of the novel where I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t face it for a week. This wasn’t cliché, it was just what inevitably had to occur based on how Oates portrayed Daddy Love and Gideon’s relationship.

Here’s where I had to stop for a while:

“In some of the watercolors, which were more brightly colored than the drawings, and less ominous, the boy was in a canoe-shaped vessel that floated above the earth. All about him, stars and moons in a nighttime sky.

Inside the canoe-like vessel with the boy was an animal resembling a dog. Sandy-colored, with erect ears and a long curved furry tail.

A friendly animal! This was a relief. This was in contrast to the sinister tone of the drawings.

…Gideon called her ‘Missy.’ Gideon loved loved loved Missy.

Missy was Gideon’s responsibility, utterly. Gideon fed her twice daily and kept her plastic food-dishes clean. He kept her water-dishes filled with fresh water. He brushed her coat, which was a warm beautiful sand-colored coat that tended to snarl, with a special dog-brush. Especially, Gideon was zealous about keeping her from barking at the wrong time.”


I think the most powerful part of the book is the ending, where what should be a happy resolution of a child being reunited with his parents isn’t. Robbie/Gideon has suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Daddy Love, and the return to his parents is rocky and filled with anxiety for son, mother, and father. A huge vacuum was left in Robbie’s parents’ lives after his abduction, but once he’s returned their days are filled with moving households, therapy, and questions: Who is Robbie now? What’s he thinking? What does he remember of his early life? and Will he ever be the same? And what Oates conveys is that these abducted, abused children are marked for life if they’re lucky enough to escape their captors.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.
Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

My Sister, My Love

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.