One of Joyce Carol Oates’ greatest talents as a writer is her ability to portray the characters in a forthright, straightforward sense. Her characters are not living a “Hallmark moment” and their lives are not a sugarcoated fantasy – they are simply real people, living real lives. Granted, they are not truly “real people,” they are fictional characters, but Oates writes in such a way that the reader comes to feel like she knows the characters or even that she could reach out and touch them with her own hand.
Oates’ latest novel, The Falls, is a superb story of epic proportions, and fans of Oates’ work will not be disappointed. The novel begins in 1950 with Ariah Erskine, a thin, plain, redheaded twenty-nine-year-old woman. Ariah is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his dutiful wife, and she has spent the past twenty-nine years being a well-mannered, Christian young woman. Due to her age, Ariah is quickly headed to spinsterhood when she is strategically paired up with a suitable man. The couple marries and they are to spend their honeymoon in a hotel near the Niagara Falls. After a rather bizarre and conceivably “disastrous” first night of their honeymoon, the groom secretly departs from the hotel in the early morning hours and throws himself into “The Falls” – a sure, swift death, although his body will not turn up for seven days.
Ariah is stunned and at first unbelieving that her husband, a religious man, would commit suicide. She holds a vigil for seven days at The Falls while she waits for her husband’s body to appear. At her side throughout the vigil is Dirk Burnaby, a confirmed bachelor and highly respected man of wealth, good looks and charm. Dirk is baffled as to why he is drawn to this strange, pale, red-haired woman but he falls in love with her in that week’s time and realizes that he wants to spend the rest of his life with Ariah. A passionate love affair ensues between Dirk and Ariah which culminates in marriage, children and, for Ariah, a privileged life that was previously unknown in her small world.
While many people scorned Ariah and Dirk (especially their own families) due to the sudden marriage so quickly after the death of Ariah’s first husband, Ariah and Dirk are oblivious to any nay-sayers; they are deeply in love and simply do not care about the opinions of others. However, their seemingly perfect existence begins to crack and eventually shatters when tragedy strikes and distrust, greed, ill will and murder seep into their lives and essentially “contaminates” the Burnabys. The Burnaby children are left to deal with a legacy of dark secrets, public scorn and unsettled emotions and many, many questions about their family.
The Falls is a gripping, enthralling novel set in the mid-twentieth century in the Niagara Falls area, and what begins as a love story unfolds into a family crisis. Oates is an extremely talented writer who has an uncanny ability to create richly drawn characters and an engrossing read. Fans of Oates and fans of literary fiction should not miss The Falls, and this reviewer looks forward to reading more by Oates.