Oates looks at a violent crime and its aftermath from multiple viewpoints: a tense novella somewhat akin to her Beasts (2002).
Events spin out from the night of July 4, 1996, when, in the upstate New York city of Niagara Falls, 30-ish widow Martine “Teena” Maguire is brutalized and left for dead in a violent gang rape narrowly escaped by her adolescent daughter “Bethie.” Oates uses a carefully fragmented structure, describing events leading up to the rape, the act itself, the hearing at which Teena’s attackers are accused, and the fates that pursue the sociopathic “townies” charged with the crime. Interestingly, Oates does not take us inside Teena’s thoughts—instead rendering those of the distraught Bethie (addressed directly, in second-person narration), Teena’s lover Ray Casey, deputy prosecutor Harriet Diebenkorn, the roughhewn working-class father of two of the rapists, and—crucially—stoical police officer John Dromoor, a married man who selflessly resists his attraction to Teena, but cannot resist becoming an instrument of justice when a slick defense attorney discourages Teena from undergoing an actual trial. Rape: A Love Story must surmount its seemingly dumb title (which is precisely accurate), and such clichés as allegations that a provocatively dressed beautiful woman must have been “asking for it,” Ray Casey’s inability to desire Teena after she’s been violated, and Dromoor’s equation of guns with virility. But read on: as the focus shifts to Teena’s attackers, then back to Bethie, the story gathers headlong intensity, and the sense of doom inexorably working itself out is simultaneously distasteful, logical, and dramatically just. And Oates caps it with a devastating, finely judged two-page epilogue.
We’ve been here before, and this is flawed work, as noted. But Oates has achieved memorable successes in the short-novel form and, on balance, this is one of them.