Monday, November 25, 2013


Joyce Carol Oates

Published 2012

First Sentence
"You must be readied, the woman said."
Publisher's Description:

A riveting novel that explores the high price of success in the life of one woman—the first female president of a lauded ivy league institution—and her hold upon her self-identity in the face of personal and professional demons, from Joyce Carol Oates, author of the New York Timesbestseller A Widow’s Story

Mudgirl is a child abandoned by her mother in the silty flats of the Black Snake River. Cast aside, Mudgirl survives by an accident of fate—or destiny. After her rescue, the well-meaning couple who adopt Mudgirl quarantine her poisonous history behind the barrier of their middle-class values, seemingly sealing it off forever. But the bulwark of the present proves surprisingly vulnerable to the agents of the past.

Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Her commitment to her career and moral fervor for her role are all-consuming. Involved with a secret lover whose feelings for her are teasingly undefined, and concerned with the intensifying crisis of the American political climate as the United States edges toward war with Iraq, M.R. is confronted with challenges to her leadership that test her in ways she could not have anticipated. The fierce idealism and intelligence that delivered her from a more conventional life in her upstate New York hometown now threaten to undo her.

A reckless trip upstate thrusts M.R. Neukirchen into an unexpected psychic collision with Mudgirl and the life M.R. believes she has left behind. A powerful exploration of the enduring claims of the past,Mudwoman is at once a psychic ghost story and an intimate portrait of a woman cracking the glass ceiling at enormous personal cost, which explores the tension between childhood and adulthood, the real and the imagined, and the “public” and “private” in the life of a highly complex contemporary woman.

Dear Reader,

This is a book about the true development of a crushed human soul. A woman who has lived with a confusing and troubled past. A past that she has broken away from to become a reputable and accomplished President of a very prestigious University (the first FEMALE one). Even though M.R. has gained acclaim from her academic career, we slowly see her unravel in a horrific downward spiral. It brings the reader to a very strange place, that has you wondering what might be real and what might be hallucination. This is something that Oates does very well and really brings about that gothic and dark feel she is so known for.

We're first introduced to M.R. (Mudwoman) as a child who lives with an overtly religious zealot mother and her creepy pedophilic boyfriend. There is no mention if this man is her father, and later on even M.R. reflects on this, wondering if she ever even had a father. Within the first few chapters (might even be the first one, can't quite remember) we read in horror as her mother takes this precious little girl and throws her into a mud pit to suffocate (hence the title of the book). By the good graces of a local who is guided by this mysterious "King of Crows" (a recurring animal guide in the story), he finds this child in the mud and rescues her. This all happens very early and is even mentioned on the book flap, so I don't consider this a spoiler. The child is then taken to an orphanage and adopted shortly after by a Quaker family, very kind and loving but they have a strange story of their own. I won't get into this because I think there is a pivotal point to the back-story of this family, one I don't want to ruin for you.

The book goes back and forth from present to past as we watch M.R. slowly deteriorate and travel back to places that remind her of her past. Oates did this so smoothly, it wasn't hard to follow at all. I love when an Author has a good grasp of when to move the story from present to past without losing too much of the feeling. You find yourself wondering what exactly is going on, but not because of the time frame. This feeling is from all the daydreams, hallucinations and events that happen and you don't quite know which is which. Is what just happened a dream? Reality? It was kind of fun trying to figure it all out without getting you lost in the process.

I think my favorite part of this book is the major theme of feminism. Yes, Oates tends to have a heavy hand on this theme in most of her books... but does that make it any less important? No! Mostly because she does it so gosh darn well. You have to remember that Oates was born in the late 1930's, during a period of time that was extremely enclosed. She grew up on a farm and attended a school with only one classroom! She was given a typewriter at age 14 and has been writing ever since. She really makes the perfect feminism writer, although she claims she doesn't like that label and would rather be known as "a woman who writes". I just adore everything about this woman, so yeah... I'm pretty biased.

Getting back to the book, Mudwoman is so chock full of symbolism that at times I was wondering if I was fully understanding everything there was to the story. For example, during M.R.'s travels she came across many physical bridges that also played a huge part in unraveling her past. These bridges were big turning points for her, crossing them brought her clarity to her past. This was probably one of the most obvious symbols in the book and I'm sure I missed quite a few of the more inconspicuous ones. This would be a book to re-read, knowing that the second attempt would bring about much more clarity to the story. If you want to challenge yourself a little, I suggest reading this book and trying to reflect on what Oates really was trying to convey with Mudwoman. I would be interested to see what others thought.

Happy Reading,

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