Book Review: A Fair Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates

Title: A Fair Maiden

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Number of Pages: 165

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Rating: C+

Recommended?: No

A Fair Maiden centers around the extremely creepy relationship between Katya Spivak, a rough-hewn but vulnerable sixteen-year-old girl working as a live-in nanny for a wealthy familt, and Marcus Kidder, a sixteen-year-old artist and lover of beauty in all it’s forms- especially the underage kind.  Katya comes from a lower-class family of compulsive gamblers and ne’er-do-wells, and is drawn to Marcus’ wealth and the attention he showers her with.


Soon Katya learns that Marcus has a special plan for her, and Marcus believes that they are soul mates ‘born at awkward times’ (gee, where have I heard that one before?) Katya, too naïve to realize that she is being manipulated, starts to develop genuine feelings for Marcus, although she is uncomfortable with some of the things Marcus does (like pressuring her to pose for him in lingerie, for example) and a twisted relationship develops.


A Fair Maiden is actually pretty well-written, as I’ve come to expect from Joyce Carol Oates, but it is also the weakest book that I’ve read by her so far. The characters’ behavior just didn’t seem plausible to me, Katya swings wildly between thinking Marcus Kidder is a pervert (which he most certainly is) and feeling contempt for him, and kowtowing to him, even gushing at certain points that she might be in love with him. She even seems to forgive Marcus for drugging and molesting her, which, regardless of what Joyce Carol Oates might have been trying to say about the power imbalances of class and gender, made me roll my eyes. You can chalk Katya’s annoyingly inconsistent character down to her being young and immature, but I didn’t buy it.


Marcus Kidder’s character and dialogue didn’t seem believable to me, it seemed very fake. Another issue I had with the novel was the plotline with Roy Mraz, Katya’s cousin, and the robbery; it didn’t seem to actually go anywhere, it just seemed tacked on there for shock value. I think this could have been a really good book if Joyce Carol Oates had spent more time working on it, it seems kind of lazily written, in certain respects. A Fair Maiden is one of those books where you know something bad is going to happen, and you read with bated breath for the shit to hit the fan. And you can be sure bad things happen in this novel, but not all of it makes a whole lot of sense.


The initially unnerving premise actually approached silliness as certain things were revealed, which is never good with a story that takes itself as seriously as this one does. I recommend you skip this book and read Zombie or Black Water instead, which are also very dark (especially Zombie. Yikes!) but which possess better storytelling and characters that remain consistent throughout, instead of flip-flopping between extremes when the plot requires them to like Katya Spivak or delivering dialogue that is stilted and entirely unconvincing like Marcus Kidder. I don’t think this is a absolutely terrible book, I really liked some of the writing, but it’s the first book I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates that I wouldn’t recommend.

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