There's no stopping Joyce Carol Oates. She arguably may be the most prolific author of the 20th and now the 21st century. She spins literary gold faster than most readers can keep up with her gilded publications. Her latest, MISSING MOM, adds to her sumptuous buffet of fictional delights.
Returning to the setting of WE WERE THE MULVANEYS --- Mount Ephraim, New York --- Oates's focus moves from upper class struggles to the mundane of the middle class. Gwen "Feather" Eaton, a widow in her late 50s, is a realistic woman, a mother of two daughters who takes in strays and enjoys playing hostess for family events. She's remarkably likable, in fact more likable than daughter Nikki, the narrator of the book.
Nikki, with her "inky maroon" hair, is a somewhat aimless reporter involved with a married man. Her disdain for her mother is clear right from the start of the book when her mother's motherly reaction to her new hairdo leaves Nikki upset and thinking, "Before I was through the doorway and into the kitchen. Before she hugged me stepping back with this startled look in her face. I would remember the way Mom's voice lifted on hair like the cry of a bird shot in mid-flight."
Nikki thinks and behaves more like a teenager than the 31-year-old she is. When her mother is brutally murdered by an ex-con fifty pages into the book, Nikki blames her mother when she says, "You are to blame for what happened!" and then asks over and over and over again in a shrill, adolescent voice, "Why? Why?"
Ironically, the novel begins with Nikki saying, "This is my story about missing my mother. One day, in a way unique to you, it will be your story, too." The women, despite their differences, are a tight family, and the death of Gwen affects them all. Nikki is forced to mourn, to deal with loss and to deal with revelations she had not anticipated.
It is Oates's genius and to her credit that she takes the most mundane of things and crafts them with hypersensitivity --- the items in a junk drawer, the mother's care at meal time, the color of Nikki's hair. They are all heightened by the fraught interactions between mother and child at the start of the story and further charged in the time after the death of Gwen. Violence, a common theme in Oates's work, has its place here, but it is the common, the subtle, that is brought to new heights by Oates. Gwen, an unassuming character who might have been lost at the end of someone else's pen, is rendered by Oates to be long remembered.
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 7, 2011