A patient act of seduction has curiously appropriate mythic resonance in this brisk novella.
It’s a “fairy tale,” explicitly linked to the anonymous “Ballad of Barbara Allen” (excerpts from which are quoted in the text) about a cruel young beauty and the boy who died for love of her. But Oates (Wild Nights!, 2008, etc.) considerably alters those details in the story of 16-year-old Katya Spivak’s summer of employment as nanny to the young children of a wealthy couple who vacation in the posh New Jersey seaside town of Bayhead Harbor. This haven lies far from Vineland, the grimy inland hamlet where Katya’s broken and wasted family members are “scattered like sea creatures washed ashore in the wake of a terrible storm.” Marcus Kidder, an elegant, handsome older man, approaches Katya and politely courts her, gradually emphasizing his intuition that they are “soul mates.” She finds herself dreamily visiting his lavish home, first rejecting then luxuriating in his attentions, gradually edging away from the worlds she knows and fears to enter Mr. Kidder’s artfully woven web. This being Oates, there’s a considerable amount of melodrama and violence, mostly initiated by Katya’s drunken slut of a mother, and her thuggish cousin Roy. But this brief tale, oddly reminiscent here and there of Edith Wharton’s classic short novel Summer, is expertly paced and suffused, not only with the usual hasty and lax prose, but also with sharp suggestive images: e.g., Kidder’s limousine, always waiting for Katya, slinks along “silent and smooth-gliding as an undersea predator.” Furthermore, the sinister, charming, “artistic” Mr. Kidder, a king of sorts among men, emerges quite convincingly as both more and less than he appears to be.
Oates at her most restrained and hence best. This one almost makes up for the ludicrous overkill of My Sister, My Love (2008). Almost.