First Love and will then continue with two of her short story collections and finish with her novel Foxfire. Hopefully, from reading these various forms, we can come to between understand her overall style and themes.
First Love is a disturbing novella that tells the story of an eleven year of girl named Josie whose mother leaves her father and decides to take Josie away to upstate New York where the two will live with her aunt. Josie soon realizes, that she has never met this aunt before and that the aunt is infact her GREAT aunt whom her mother has not seen for decades. Josie is an inquisitive girl, which her mother finds troubling at times, who finds it difficult to settle into her great aunt's house where there are so many unexplained rules. The majority of these rules revolve around Josie's second cousin Jared Jr. who is currently taking time off from studying theology at the local seminary and has taken up residence in the house. Josie is fascinated by Jared Jr if only for the fact that she is perplexed by Jesus Christ and his purpose/meaning in Josie's life as well as that of her cousin's. However, Jared takes advantage of Josie's interest in him by using her as a test of his celibacy. He begins to physically abuse her and often strips her naked as a way to make him stronger by not acting on his lust for her.
Though Oates' writing is as prolific and moving as always, the subject matter seems a bit too heavy even for her. Of course she has written other books with troubling themes, this novella seemed to be even more disturbing than her usual writings. First, it was written in the gothic tradition and contained numerous allusions to Satan and the devil. In many ways, the writing of the story was reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter yet with even darker underlying themes. Perhaps, it was the form of the novella and its shortened length that gave the reader the feeling of being almost assaulted by the story. Lastly, Oates wrote this story in the second person (for the most part) making the reader feel as if these events and acts were being done to his/herself.
Overall, I did not like this work. I found it too disturbing but without much depth. The themes were, at times, insipid and the characters were one-dimensional. Clearly, Oates wanted to address hypocrisy in religion and the hazards of naivete. Yet, this did not seem like the appropriate story to illustrate those points. The troubling plot was so overwhelming that Oates' message and theme were, for the most part, lost.