The Falls

by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco, September, 2004.
Hardcover, 496 pages.
ISBN: 0060722282

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates A young man, just married, leaves the honeymoon suite and his bride of only one evening to cast himself into the watery Hell of Niagara Falls. People are shocked. His bride of one night, clearly in a state of shock waits at the Falls for the body to be recovered. The young man was to take his place in a small parish church after the honeymoon, and his wife, daughter of a strict, well known minister, was to begin her life as a minister's wife. With this strange incident, the reader is drawn into a story that spans three generations of a family that lives out its destiny in Niagara Falls. How the personalities interact with each other and the events that take place in the area in the mid-twentieth century becomes a tale that raises as many questions as it answers about the human condition.

The churning fury of the falling Niagara River is not the only dangerous place in the town of Niagara. While the Falls are the result of the indifferent forces that shape the fate of the planet, Love Canal with its hideous oozing death is even more deadly. It is not the result of natural causes but the result of human indifference which is more virulent than the fascination that draws tortured souls to the Falls. Into this deadly mixture is that most fierce of human emotions: self preservation.

Central to the story is the marriage of Dirk Burnaby and Ariah. The author probes the mystery of why golden young men, steadfast but impulsive, will fall for a most unsuitable woman of no particular gifts. Dirk Burnaby is the golden boy, a successful attorney, member of society with all its resulting privileges, who falls hard for the thin, unremarkable young widow with the faded red hair and the pale greenish eyes. Their marriage separates them from the worlds from where they grew up. But the goodhearted impulsiveness of Dirk Burnaby plays out in other ways to seal his fate and that of his children.

The Falls is a very American novel that displays the many forces that acted upon the lives of Americans at the mid-century. Like Niagara Falls, the story of the Burnaby family draws us along as it probes the streams of behavior that reappear in so many forms through the generations. Ms. Oates' lyrical use of language, her harnessing of the power of raw emotion, her brilliant use the metaphor of the effect of nature (the falls) and forces created by man (the pollution of the Love Canal) both draw people in to their own destruction. Her ability to draw the reader into the fevered lives of her characters mark her as one of our great American treasures.

--Sarah Reaves White

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This review was published in the January-February, 2005 of The Internet Writing Journal.

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