I am not sure which is more disturbing in this latest of Joyce Carol Oates's Gothic novels: an old man's creepy approach to a 16-year-old girl, with its undertones of Lolita and Bluebeard, or the way in which Oates seems to relish class stereotypes. In this short novel, she pares down her characters almost to archetypes so that most subtleties disappear. We're left with wealthy patrician Marcus Kidder, an artist with a taste for fine wines and beautiful girls, and Katya Spivak who, like so many of Oates's unloved working-class teenage girls, lives on the edge of danger and chaos.
A Fair Maiden begins during one summer in a wealthy New Jersey resort where Katya is nanny for a nouveau riche family who Kidder snobbishly dismisses as one of "the swarm of new people proliferating... like mayflies". They are not special, like Kidder with his grand old house, "like an illustration in a children's storybook".
Though Katya is repulsed by his evident attraction to her and insulted by his assumption that she will pose for him in sexy red underwear, she is almost hypnotised by his soothing words and appreciation, his promise that she who has felt worthless will become one of the chosen. In Kidder, she finds not only money and luxury, but the father and the tender lover she has never had. Yet Katya does not realise until the the end what he really wants from her.
What are we to make of this novel with odd combination of soft porn and fairytale, its conflation of sex and death, its voyeuristic narrative voice? The joining of the realistic story of class, sex and callow youth to a luminous tale of transformation does not quite work; perhaps because it seems formulaic. There are some fine moments – Katya's dream of running joyfully over a beach strewn with poisonous jellyfish, and the funereal splendour of Kidder's bedroom – but the novel seems too controlled, as if the author had never allowed her characters one moment to roam free.