American family saga, Oates style—which means a dark household full of lust, obsessions, visions, ghosts, murders, disappearances, grotesques, mystical animals, religious conversions. . . and page after page of roiling, lazily ornate Oates prose. The book is made of 80 short, titled, often disconnected chapters—some episodes from the lives of distant Bellefleur ancestors (pioneer Jedediah wandering the hills in feverish search of God, great-great-grandfather Raphael insisting that his posthumous skin be made into a drum), but mostly tales of the vaguely 20th-century Bellefleurs on their lakeside estate in the Adirondacks-like mountains. Throughout, the wandering focus settles most often on Leah B., who has strange "powers" that seem forever frustrated: when she married handsome cousin Gideon, he squashed her pet spider named "Love"; Gideon has proven to be an insatiable philanderer (impregnating an underage local wench); so now Leah, mother of twins, burns with desire for another child—and indeed she becomes colossally pregnant (eating raw beefsteak) and gives birth to a girl baby who unfortunately has the lower half of a boy baby growing out of her abdomen. (Grandmother Della chops away the excess: "now it's a she and not a he. I've had enough of he. . .") Baby Germaine then becomes Leah's mystical guide, inspiring her to rebuild the crumbled Bellefleur empire and also secure a pardon for great-uncle Jean-Pierre II, who's been locked up for decades as a supposed mass murderer (eventually released, the old man will later massacre some Bellefleur enemies). And, while Leah pursues her obsession, a dozen other family members more or less succumb to the Bellefleur curse: a legendary vulture swoops down and kills Gideon's illegitimate baby; Gideon's poet brother Vernon ("my essence is Vernon and not Bellefleur, I belong to God, I am God") is drowned by anti-Bellefleur townies; brother Ewan gets religion; niece Yolande is raped, then avenged; nephew Raphael disappears (he's become obsessed with voices calling to him from a pond). There are recurring motifs (revenge, sin, God, modes of transport), a stream of surreal creatures (a knowing dwarf, powerful cats and dogs, rats all through the mansion, a black bear who married a 19th-century Bellefleur), and an apocalyptic finale—in which Gideon, still philandering but sick of the struggle with Leah over Germaine, flies his plane into Bellefleur Manor, kamikaze-style. But for all the connections and weavings and trappings of myth/epic, this massive novel never seems more than a grab-bag of familiar Oates preoccupations and turns of mind—the best of which turn up in a few of the entirely self-contained early-Bellefleur tales (like "The Clavichord"). And even the intermittent impacts here are diluted by Oates' overheated, increasingly undisciplined, often downright slovenly prose: parentheses within parentheses, indiscriminate italics and exclamation points, obvious ideas belabored and decorated, baroque devices unsupported by intellectual vigor or verbal panache. As always, some moody and grimly ghoulish leaps of imagination—but, overall, a great pudding of a book lacking in shape, flavor, and substance.

Pub Date: Aug. 11, 1980

ISBN: 0452267943

Page Count: 596

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1980

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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