With WE WERE THE MULVANEYS Joyce Carol Oates, an author known for
her difficult, symbolic novels and short stories, penned another
classic, this time exploring the American family. In her latest
novel, THE FALLS, she examines similar subject matter:
relationships, family dynamics, secrets adding a bit of conspiracy,
corporate greed, environmentalism, and even a murder.
THE FALLS begins with scenes familiar to Oates's readers:
half-veiled action, charged emotionalism, strange and interesting
characters, an abundance of description and metaphor. It is June
1950 and a young man throws himself into the churning, hypnotic
waters of Niagara Falls. Meanwhile his bride of one day wakes up
frantic, sickened and confused in their honeymoon suite. The
physically and emotionally bruised Ariah Erskine hides her new
husband's suicide note, refusing to believe what has happened and
begins a seven-day vigil waiting for Gilbert to return to her,
hopefully alive, most likely dead.
The daughter of a minister, Ariah never imagined she would be in a
honeymoon suite at all. Nearing spinsterhood, she knew deep down
the marriage to Gilbert Erskine was a sham but was willing to play
along. The wedding night, however, proved traumatic for them both.
The marriage and experience of the bridal bed was too much for
Gilbert and compelled him to take his own life rather than live a
It is during this tragic week that Ariah, known now as the "widow
bride of the Falls," meets Dirk Burnaby. Dirk is enthralled by the
mysterious Ariah, but she doesn't seem to notice him at all. Later,
when they meet again, she is drawn to him as well. And soon they
begin a life together that, three children later, seems ideal. So
this is the story of love's redemption and second chances? Not so
fast. Soon the novel takes a new turn.
Quickly the story of Ariah and Dirk's marriage finds her again a
widow. Again she loses a husband to cold waters. Dirk Burnaby is
the only lawyer willing to take on a case that challenges the
area's elite and threatens the economic foundation of the
community. For years the truth was hidden, but Burnaby is willing
to bring to light the fact that entire neighborhoods were built on
toxic land and that now the children are sick and dying, adults are
aging before their time, and women are miscarrying again and again.
Burnaby goes on a compulsive and dangerous crusade for justice. Now
we have a novel about the environment and corporate responsibility.
Well, not exactly.
After Dirk Burnaby is murdered, Ariah is left alone with their
three children and an over-exaggerated sense of pride. Or maybe she
is just crazy. She does her best to erase their father and his
memory from their lives, presumably to spare herself from more
hurt. It is, instead, a horrible emotional abuse. Each of the three
children grows up having to deal with the legacy of their father
and live with their damaged mother. They cope in their own way and
eventually learn about their parents' past. Is this the story of
children overcoming a sad and painful childhood to become
successful adults? No, not really.
By the end of THE FALLS it seems we have read several books, and
not just one, and not only because of its wordiness. Oates seems
unable or unwilling to stick to one theme too long at all. While
this is an ambitious novel with much to recommend it (the
characters are intriguing and Niagara Falls itself is a menacing
and interesting presence throughout), it is not wholly
THE FALLS is a complex and shadowy book, not always a page-turner.
So little is resolved or explained despite its tidy conclusion that
it is frustrating.
It is hard to identify with or even like Ariah. She is portrayed as
less than attractive, cruel to her children and more than a little
bit crazy. Yet she is who Oates chooses to drive the plot of the
THE FALLS may please Oates's dedicated fans, and it is not a bad
novel. But if one is looking for an engaging, enjoyable book, her
previous family saga, WE WERE THE MULVANEYS, is a more
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011