Wednesday 20 July 2011

Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors who has been on my to-read list for a while but something has always stopped me from reading her.  So I was pleased to be able to pick up a copy of the short novel Rape: A Love Story from my library.

Teena Maguire and her twelve year old daughter Bethel are walking home from a house party when they run into a group of neighbourhood men they know.  While Bethel hides, Teena is repeatedly and brutally gang raped and then left for dead.  The story is really about what happened afterwards, and society's attitude towards rape and rape victims.

Whenever I've read about rape statistics, I'm always shocked at the low conviction rates and appalled at the attitudes that some express, that can be blatantly victim blaming.  Joyce Carol Oates sums all of this up perfectly in her novel by putting society's views in italics as a contrast to what actually happened to Teena.  Some think she deserved it because she was wearing a short skirt, or because she was a widow who actually dated, or because she was out late at night.  Others think she was making it up and actually consented in exchange for money, despite all of her injuries.  They resent Teena for telling the truth.  Under pressure from a community in which the rapists are also peoples friends, sons and brothers, Teena retreats into herself and finds recovery near to impossible.

The bit that really struck a chord with me was how Oates described the rape taking over the identity of the two women - Teena would also be 'that woman from the boat house' and Bethel 'that girl, Teena Maguire's daughter'.  At school, Bethel is bullied by the relations of the rapists and called the daughter of a whore.  Oates perfectly illuminated society's views without making it too obvious for the reader - something that must have been hard to pull off.

Verdict: A short but powerful read about an important issue.  Contains graphic scenes of gang rape.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Source: Library


  1. Wow. This book sounds intense. It, however, sounds worthy of a read. Thanks for the review.

  2. I'm interested to read Oates. My first introduction to her was the audiobook for A Fair Maiden. Disturbing and uncomfortable, I didn't care for it in audio form. I think I'll try another Oates story and will read the printed version instead. I might start with this one - I know her work tends to be disturbing so I need to be prepared.

  3. Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors!
    This book was so emotionally harrowing, and yet so gripping. Most of Oates' books that I have read manage to have a powerful impact on the reader.

    I would also recommend We were the Mulvaneys and My Sister, My Love.

  4. Reading your review of Rape by Oates reminded me of an article I read in the current issue of MORE Magazine while waiting in the dentist's office.

    "After the mob attack on Lara Logan, many commenters claimed she was partly to blame. Recalling her own experiences with sexual violence and public criticism, Deborah Copaken Kogan dissects the judgment game"

    P.S. I enjoy reading your blog.

  5. I've had mixed experiences with Oates. I read The Falls -- which I loved. Although it took while to get into it, once I did, I couldn't put it down. I was so jazzed to read her again that I picked up The Gravedigger's Daughter -- which I loathed. Have been afraid to try again :)

  6. I love Joyce Carol Oates. I find she writes like an estranged wife swings a base-ball bat. She aims for the fence! Rape was a powerhouse, as well as Zombie and Beasts.

  7. Donovan - Hope you enjoy the book.

    Natalie - I hadn't heard of A Fair Maiden, but it sounds interesting. I think heavy hitting books are much better in printed form as the narrator could easily change the meanings.

    Misha - Yes, it was a gripping book. I read it in a day, couldn't put it down.

    WildIris - Thanks for linking to the article. It's a shame Oates was drawing from real life, it makes me really angry.

    The Book Girl - I'll have to look out for The Falls. You should try Rape A Love Story, it's short and very hard to put down.

    Ben - You're right about Oates :P
    I can't wait to read more of her stuff!

  8. I've only read a short story of hers, I forget the name of it now, but it's in the Stories collection edited by Neil Gaiman and I have to say I didn't love it, so wasn't tempted to read more by her. Although I think it takes a very skilful writer to take such a harrowing experience and create something powerful and readable with it - maybe I should revise my decision not to read more of her stuff!

  9. Mummazappa - I think lots of people do have mixed experiences with her but I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it :)

  10. Oates is an amazing writer (and amazingly prolific!). I've enjoyed a few of her novels and a short story collection, but find I need to be in the right frame of mind. Sometimes her writing seems too intense/bleak/depressing.