There's no question that Joyce Carol Oates is a commanding storyteller. The question is, could she have told this story in fewer pages? Even the New York Times Book Review called the book's pages "sloppy, self-indulgent."
The Gravedigger's Daughter wasn't so much a joy to read as it was a commitment. Nearing the end of the book, after I had married myself to the protagonist by force of will, I found myself genuinely interested in what the conclusion might be. But it took several hundred pages of twists, turns and reinventions to get to that place.
The novel tells the story of Rebecca Schwart, whose German-Jewish family emigrated to the U.S. during World War II. Rebecca was born on the actual vermin-infested boat her parents and two other brothers took to America. She was born in New York Harbor, a U.S. citizen.
But her educated father, Jacob, who had been a high school Math teacher in Germany, could find only menial labor in his new country. Jacob became a cemetery caretaker to provide for his family. His wife, Anna, never quite took to America. Her husband, who became increasingly paranoid, convinced her the world was out to get her, full of anti-Semites. They both kind of lost their senses and themselves in the dank cemetery cottage that came with Jacob's job.
Rebecca's brothers took off when they became teens. Her father went insane, bought a gun, shot his wife and then shot himself in front of Rebecca when she was just 13. She became a ward of the county and would become the victim of teasing and bullying at school for her father's actions, for her Jewish background. She dropped out at 16.
Rebecca becomes a chambermaid at a resort hotel in town. There she becomes enraptured with one of the hotel's frequent guests, travelling businessman Niles Tignor. The deceptively charming, beer-swilling brut Tignor courts her in his way of getting her drunk, buying her a green plaid coat, giving her a used ring. He shows his true colors by beating her severely, and unprovoked. She fights back, bloodies him up a little. She forgives him. Sadly, this is not the last time Tignor unleashes his rage on a girl more than 20 years younger and a fraction of his size.
Tignor marries Rebecca, takes her on the road with him, beats her some more, causes her a miscarriage, "allows" her to get pregnant again. He sets her up in a small rented house and leaves her there, forgets to send money. All on her own, she bears a son, Niley, the light of her life. Tignor shows up from time to time to play dad and, during one of those visits, flies into a jealous rage wanting Rebecca to tell him about all the other guys she sees behing his back. There are none.
He beats her viciously in a drunken rage, nearly killing her. Toddler Niley tries to stop his Daddy and gets thrown across the room. Rebecca and Niley escape. Here the novel enters its second or third reincarnation. Rebecca reinvents herself, and comes up with a new identity for her son.
Long story short (you were waiting for that, weren't you?) Rebecca protects herself from being found by Tignor by becoming Hazel, and by always looking over her shoulder. Hazel finds herself a new life and a man who would never lay a hand on her. Her son becomes a celebrated pianist. Hazel grows to love this gentle man, who adores her to no end. A few hundred pages later: The end.
I anticipated that Rebecca would meet up with Tignor again. It was something she feared for the rest of her life. I waited for the confrontation. It never came. Bit of a letdown, frankly.
So, in conclusion, Rebecca was a resilient woman who has an uncanny ability for putting the past behind her - for self-preservation. She escaped death at her father's hand, at her husbands hands. She learned to love again and experienced happiness. You can see that this novel covered a lot of ground.
The Washington Post Book Review sums it up here:
"Every aspect of the ungainly plot feels right, including its ungainliness. Resolutions fail to arrive; lost people fail to return. Flowing through and past it all, surfacing for these 600 pages, is Oates' turbulent, cross-currented prose, with its hot upwellings and icy eddies. It's the opposite of lapidary, and has the disadvantage of being impossible to quote effectively in a brief review, but for the enthralled reader, Oates' water will eventually have its proverbial way with other writers' stone."
If I'm giving stars, I give it 3.25 out of 5. Oates' genius got me, after about page 400.
Incidentally, in December 2008, I reviewed Oates' "My Sister, My Love" a novel which paralleled the true-life mystery of tiara-wearing-toddler JonBenet Ramsey's murder. You can check that out here.