Joyce Carol Oates has a long resume stacked with novels, several plays and many other shorter works. Her latest novel, “The Falls,” which begins in the 1950s and goes through the ’70s, serving as another addition to her list of accomplishments.
The novel focuses first on Ariah Littrell, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister from a middle-class suburb. Pushing 30, anxious Ariah has finally been proposed to by clergyman Gilbert Erskine. But, he commits suicide on the first night of their honeymoon, jumping off of a bridge into Horseshoe Falls — the first of a number of tragic events in Ariah’s seemingly cursed life. While the police search for her newlywed husband’s body in nearby rivers, she meets a young man named Dirk Burnaby. Much to the dismay of her family, she ends up marrying him a few weeks later. The rest of the novel explores Ariah’s new life with hot-shot Dirk and her self-destructive behavior.
Unlike many of the other characters, especially Dirk, Ariah is quite disagreeable. She is moody and often takes her feelings out on her family. Her character works within the context of the story, but her negative qualities may repel readers. Oates may have realized this, since Ariah is not as central in the second half of the novel. Instead, Oates tells the story from the point of view of Ariah’s children: intelligent Chandler, popular Royall and fragile Juliet. By allowing the reader to get into the minds of all of the characters, she establishes a real grasp on what they are thinking.
The novel’s main fault is that it’s a little overdramatic at times. The twists and turns of the plot make “The Falls” like a soap opera at a few points. However, with Ariah’s histrionics, this seems somewhat unavoidable, especially in a novel so lengthy.
Oates has a lifetime of writing experience, and it shows; it’s impossible not to be drawn into the well-written story. Even though the novel is nearly 500 pages long, it’s not burdensome to finish because the story is so captivating. Anyone who likes dramatic stories will probably enjoy this book, but fans of Oates’s other works particularly will appreciate this novel. “The Falls” draws the reader in from the first page and maintains interest until the end.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars