Title: First Love: A Gothic Tale
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco Books, Harper Collins
Genre: Literary Fiction
Life is cruel and loneliness is its master. Josie learns this soon enough. This is the story of a bewildered eleven-year old who only wants to be loved by the people around her and fails getting it. Oates wrote this novella in 1996 and though I only read it now, it still seems fresh, even after fifteen years.
The background of the novella is that Josie’s mother left her husband and has now moved to another state to live with her mother’s cousin. Josie’s mother drifts away in a new town – new men to date and new jobs to explore, leaving Josie all alone to explore the lay of the land. Her 25-year old cousin Jared is studying to be a minister. She meets him and a sordid love story (or not) takes place. He has his own demons to conquer (or he is unable to) and he enjoys the dominance he displays using her as the bait. Her naïve eleven-year old mind mistakes this for love.
There are sub-texts and layers of sexual references and the reader senses sexual abuse and yet Josie is not the one without a conscience. After being asked to commit a horrendous crime and refusing it, Jared blocks Josie out of his life. The family crumbles. Delia S (Josie’s mother) takes off in her own direction and path, paying very little attention to her daughter. The great-aunt is bed-ridden and Jared goes on back to the seminary to complete his studies. This is when Josie finds her freedom and her will to live.
On the surface, it seems a pretty simple novella to understand and garner, however it is not the case. As I said earlier, there are sub-texts to the novella – mostly loneliness, alienation, of sexual awakening, incest, and of knowing what love is not.
Joyce Carol Oates is the mistress of her craft. What most authors cannot manage in 500 pages, she does in 86 pages and quite convincingly though. At no point did I want to know more or did I feel there was more to be said once I finished this novella. The adage to the title of “A Gothic Tale” could not be any truer. It is a gothic tale – both in its atmosphere and its storyline. The book is raw and not apologetic about it. I would not recommend it to people with faint hearts, however I highly recommend it nonetheless.