Joyce Carol Oates, The Female of the Species (2006)

From time to time I come back to Joyce Carol Oates, but I’m more intrigued by the writer herself than I appreciate her stories. “Appreciate” may seem a cool word, but Oates’ stories are always so challenging that you can’t say “I love it” even if it is memorable, just like the novella “Rape, a love story” had been for me before. My fascination for Oates simply comes from the discrepancy between the photo of this frail, elegant woman and what she writes.

This collection consists of horror stories and violent mysteries centered on “bad” (or at least very ambiguous) female characters. Oates seems out to prove that women can be as evil, as violent, as scheming than men. Well, of course they can, even if in traditional literature, they are supposed to be sweet, frail creatures and mainly victims.

I chose this collection at the library because it is very appropriate to the Women Unbound Challenge, but I didn’t like the collection that much. It reminded me of Patricia Highsmith, insofar as each story left me uneasy. But the approach is too systematical, each story starting with a seemingly innocent female figure (housewives, little girls, nurse…) who proves perverse and capable of murder – and mostly get away with it, on account of traditional assumptions. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but the short story form didn’t help: I had no time to relate to each character, and frankly it would be difficult to, even if most are also victims (abused, neglected, battered, brought-up in perverse ways by their parents…).

The most accomplished story in my opinion is “Hunger”, the longest and the one where the main character is more complex, but it lacks originality. A bored wealthy housewife (not from Wisteria Lane, but close) has holidays with her daughter but without her husband on Cape Cod and falls for a mysterious lover, who has a “hungry look… a wounded dancer, an ex-dancer like [her]”. We will never know for sure if he’s actually a dancer, but his hunger is both sexual and material. And of course the affair will turn bad.

I may say that I won’t read Oates anymore, but her work is definitely tempting, with her dark and daring fantasies, and even if this collection didn’t quite measure up, you can always credit her for being very effective in giving you goosebumps within a few pages.

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