For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Posted on: May 8, 2010

The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates, HarperCollins, 2007, 582 pages.

Oh, Joyce Carol Oates, you beguile me!

Your writing is so beautiful, so intricate, so compelling that I expect pleasure and delight. But I do not enjoy myself when I read your books, because the harsh reality of your stories and the lives of your characters is haunting and disturbing. The words and plot lines draw me in against my better judgment, and I choose to read on and read on.  I count pages and yearn to be finished, to move on and put your painful tale behind me, and yet I am completely absorbed and captivated by it.

I realized in this novel what happens: I do not generally like your characters. In this story, Rebecca Schwart/Hazel Jones does not move me to affection or appreciation. I do not relate to her, connect with her, understand her. For the first half of the story, the story of her life as the gravedigger’s daughter and the wife of Niles Tignor, I pitied her. You make me feel compassion for her, and sympathy—but not love or even friendliness. I do not think I would like her if we were to meet.

I would much prefer to read a book that evokes love in me. I want to like some characters and hate others. I want a book that I hate to end, because I will miss the new imaginary friends the author has created for me. When I reached the end of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, cryptic though it was, I was just glad that the character might come to a rest, and that I would be free from her grasp. The struggle of her life, a life of “keeping-going,” was relentless. Rebecca/Hazel survives, but she does not ever seem to find healing. It is the ravenous, fastidious, relentless need to protect herself that keeps me from loving her—she will not let anyone love her, including the reader.

And yet, while I do not like her, and I did not enjoy the book, I admire it greatly. It seems to me a particularly grueling skill to create a character that defies connection. To write a character that people love requires far less art, because we can write the best in ourselves and the best of our feelings to evoke delight. You have created something different and distinct, a character that stands, fully defined, on her own, without needing to be loved or hated in order to exist. You have created something that is more real and less fantasy, with the complications of real feelings, including apathy and pity and indifference. That is powerful writing, and I can at least be grateful to have experienced it.

3 Responses to "Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter"

I wasn’t able to connect with Rebecca/Hazel either. In fact, none of the characters got to me. What a disappointment.

From the sound of your review, I am probably going to give this book a miss. I can’t get into a book without some general liking of at least one of the characters.
Thanks for an interesting review.

Thank you so much for writing this review. You expressed exactly how I feel about Joyce Carol Oates’ books. She’s an incredible writer, and unfortunately her writing reflects the kind of reality that many people live in. But that is NOT a reason to shy away from it. I would encourage reading her (in small doses anyway) because we need to be jolted occasionally out of complacency. At one point I was reading all of her books but then realized I had to stop because I became too burdened by the people and the storyline. But she needs to be read. Not everyone’s life ends up neatly with redemption. If we let it, her writing can create in us empathy for real people and their situations.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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