Four novellas—and as the subtitle informs us, in each, love has definitely “gone wrong” in perverse and creepy ways.
The titular story concerns a nazar, a “talisman to ward off the ‘evil eye.’ ” Mariana, the narrator, is the fourth wife (almost always italicized, to emphasize her outsider status) of Austin Mohr, prominent director of an arts institute in San Francisco. Twenty-five years younger than her moody and volatile husband, Mariana is timid and conforming—until her domestic equilibrium is disrupted by the visit of Ines Zambranco, the first wife. The second narrative introduces us to Lizbeth, a 16-year-old who shyly develops a relationship with Desmond Parrish, an outgoing, brash and highly intelligent young man who’s supposedly taking a gap year before continuing his academic career at Amherst. Over a period of several months, Lizbeth gets increasingly nervous about Desmond’s mental stability—a valid suspicion, as she later finds out he had killed his young sister and been incarcerated in a psychiatric ward for seven years. “The Execution” puts us inside the mind of Bart Hansen, a college student seething with a monstrous hatred of his father, so he plans what he hopes will be the perfect crime—killing him with an axe. Although things inevitably go wrong (like his forgetting about the evidence provided by EZ Pay when he makes the journey home to do the murder), an exceptionally clever lawyer gets Bart his freedom since the trial ends with a hung jury. The final novella, “The Flatbed,” concerns Cecelia, a woman who’s not able to have normal sexual relations because her grandfather abused her when she was young. A man romantically interested in her becomes furious when he learns of this and arranges a meeting to get revenge on the old man.
With her focus on deviant and twisted characters, Oates continues to be a worthy descendant of the gothic tradition of Edgar Allan Poe.