On a walk one afternoon, 16-year-old Katya Spivak, a nanny in the town of Bayhead Harbor, New Jersey, is approached by Henry Kidder, an elderly illustrator; he offers her money to pose for a series of portraits and she agrees, only vaguely aware of his more sinister intentions.
A Fair Maiden is pitched as a fairytale Lolita – the unsettling story of an old man's obsession with a young girl is full of allusions to heroes, villains and magical kingdoms – but the mixture of realism and whimsy doesn't quite work, and the antiquated phraseology that creeps in to reinforce the storybook impression – "Katya was grievously wounded in her soul" – stands out awkwardly.
But the author's social satire is incisive – with wry subtlety she depicts the jealousy and resentment that simmer beneath the surface of the well-heeled seaside town. Katya is from a poor family, and imagines that by colluding with Kidder she can take revenge on her sneering employers, who envy the artist's palatial home.
Oates skillfully ratchets up the tension as Katya is drawn into Kidder's sinister world, and offers up enough unexpected twists to keep you guessing until the end.