Tuesday, March 29, 2011

215 (2011 #20). The Falls

by Joyce Carol Oates,
read by Anna Fields

This book was much better than I thought it was going to be.   It's set in Niagara Falls, New York, in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the story of Ariah Littrell Erskine and Dirk Burnaby, then jumps ahead 15 years to the late 1970s and continues the story of Ariah and her three children.

It starts a little oddly.  Ariah is on her honeymoon in June 1950 at the Falls, but her husband Gilbert leaps to his death in the falls after their first night.  It's hinted that this future minister is a closet homosexual, but Ariah doesn't know that and keeps vigil for a week until his body surfaces.  Accompanying her is local lawyer and playboy Burnaby, who inexplicably falls in love with this strange music teacher.

They are soon married, and the second part of the book covers the next 12 years, through the birth of three children, even bringing the in-laws on both sides into the story.  Then Burnaby takes on the legal case that is a mythical precursor to the real Love Canal case of the late 1970s.  Burnaby angers a lot of the local ruling class with his pro-bono work, and is run off the road and over the falls to his death (again, the reader knows this, but not his wife and children).

I thought the third part of the book was most interesting.  Set in 1977 and 1978, we read what happens to Ariah and her children Chandler, Royall, and Juliet.  Ariah never speaks of Dirk, feeling he betrayed her by taking the Love Canal case (and, she thinks, perhaps with Nina Olshaker, the "woman in black" who asked him to take it on).  The children, though, gradually learn the truth about their father.

I felt the character development of Ariah, Dirk, Chandler, Royall, and Juliet was especially good.  At the beginning of the book I felt sympathy for Ariah and suspicion of Dirk; by the end I was exasperated with Ariah and sympathetic with Dirk, and found all three children interesting.  Anna Fields' reading for the audiobook only added to the character development, as she was able to create a unique "voice" for each character, major and minor, and was equally good with men as with women.  I felt the book was well-written, the only off-note being son Royall's unrealistic encounter with the "woman in black" in 1977.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook and a print copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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