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Review: The Gravedigger's Daughter

Books by Joyce Carol Oates are the epitome of my idea of sophisticated dorkiness.  You don’t feel bad reading Oates because she seems literary and sophisticated (which she is).  However, the plot of each book could be straight out of one of the Lifetime movies I sometimes watch and then feel embarrassed that I got sucked into (totally dorky). For me, Oates is the guilty pleasure I don’t have to hide from my literary friends.

The core of each Oates book I’ve read has a relatively similar plot: a sympathetic, if a little eccentric main female character has a tragedy occur and we follow her to see how the tragedy has a rippling effect throughout her life and the lives of those closest to her.  What saves each book from being generic is the talent that Oates has with words, story form, and developing the core plot with a series of twists that make the book into a story you never really expected.

In the case of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, the main character is Rebecca, a young married woman in her mid-twenties.  The book jumps back in time to when Rebecca was a child, just after her Jewish families escape from Nazi-occupied Germany.  Her family moves to a small town where her father takes a job as the town undertaker.  After an unhappy childhood, the first tragedy strikes, leaving Rebecca on her own.

Rebecca soon becomes involved with Niles Tignor, a volatile but undeniably intoxicating man.  The two are married and soon have a son.  But soon after Tignor turns violent, forcing Rebecca to take her son and run as far from him as she can or risk being killed.  Drama!  The book follows Rebecca as she ages on the run from Tignore and her past, but I won’t say more than that for fear of spoilers.

The Gravedigger’s Daughter wasn’t my favorite Oates book, but it was a book I enjoyed reading.  Rebecca is a fascinating narrator who is constantly struggling with her identity and how to protect herself and her son.  The book starts out small, but as the plot thickens Oates turns Rebecca’s story into a sort of epic tale of life, death, and family.  In terms of book structure, the story felt a little bit too much like the last Oates book I read, The Falls, but that’s really my only big critique of the book.  Overall, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a good book that I’d recommend.

Links to Enjoy:

Other Reviews: Fresh Ink Books

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • bermudaonion December 6, 2008, 1:34 pm

    Unbelievably, I’ve never read any of Oates work.

  • Heather December 6, 2008, 2:12 pm

    Hmm. This book looks pretty good. Interestingly enough, I actually already own this book but have been reluctant to pick it up because the only Oats I have ever read, We Were the Mulvaneys, I did not too much enjoy. Perhaps I’ll seriously consider this one… thanks for the review!

  • Kim December 6, 2008, 6:20 pm

    bermudaonion: I think you should read some Oates then, I’m a big fan.

    Heather: I’ve read We Were the Mulvaney’s too, and I liked it a lot. What didn’t you like about it (maybe I can tell you if I think this one will be any different)?

  • Louise December 7, 2008, 10:23 am

    I have tried reading Oates a couple of times, but never really got into her writing style or her plots. It is not that I think it is bad literature (I read a lot of crap) but I cannot seem to get into her works. Perhaps because I once bought one of her books, thought it was a thriller and then ended up reading something that wasn’t a thriller at all and got annoyed. I don’t know, but I never picked up anything of hers since then. Your review is quite good though and it does sound like an interesting read.

  • Kim December 7, 2008, 6:58 pm

    Louise: Oates isn’t for everyone, she just holds a special place in my reading life. I would be upset if I expected a thriller and got Oates though, no question about it.

  • Lynne March 24, 2010, 6:36 am

    My neighborhood book club is considering a Joyce Carol Oates book, and I am hoping to find the one with he greatest appeal. I have just begun “The Gravedigger’s Daughter” and don’t think this is the one. Several members have already read “We Were the Mulvaneys” and “them”. Do you have any suggestions/ favorites?