Tag Archives: Reviews

Hottentot Venus: A Novel

Written by Barbara Chase-Riboud

317 pages

Published by Doubleday

Review by Vanessa F. Johnson


Stories told within the context of colonialism are not unique. Neither are those about misogyny, exploitation and tragic lives. In her novel Hottentot Venus, author Barbara Chase-Riboud tells such a story, while illuminating a life little known and unforgettable.

Hottentot Venus is the story of Ssehura, a young Khoisan girl orphaned in 1700’s South Africa. Ssehura is renamed Saartjie (which means “little Sarah” in Dutch) by a Dutch Afrikaner who becomes her master. As is Khoisan custom, Sarah is groomed to be more sexually desirable for marriage. Her buttocks are massaged with special ointments to make them swell and her genitalia are stretched to produce the legendary “Hottentot apron,” exaggerated folds of skin. Thus, Sarah is a physical curiosity and a sexual fetish to her white master. He is persuaded by an Englishman to send her to London where she becomes a sideshow sensation. The English gentry is fascinated by her exotic African ethnicity and sexually charged presence making her stuff of legend and myth. Sarah enters the world of circus freak shows and becomes a popular exhibit. She is of “things-that-never-should-never-have-been-born”—bearded ladies, dwarfs, conjoined twins, and two headed goats. The “Hottentot Venus,” as she is becomes known, is the rage of Europe. Yet, beyond the parade of curiosity seekers and perverts, the very real loneliness of this young woman comes through.

At once intrigued and disgusted by the story of the Sarah Baartman, I held on until the end where Sarah speaks as a dissected corpse stripped of her womanhood by a depraved scientist determined to confirm her as the missing link in the Great Chain of Being. Even in death she is displayed as an oddity. Her brain and genitalia are displayed in jars for the benefit of scientific discovery and, no doubt, sexual fantasy.

Chase-Riboud is uncompromising in her recreations of the bohemian sordidness of of 18th century London and Paris. The claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable in her exhaustive imagery. The author’s dialogue technique may take a minute to get used to inasmuch as she doesn’t use typical conventions such as quotation marks. This lends itself to the European feel of the novel. Unfortunately, most of the motivations of the male characters are obvious—greed, sexism, racism, lust—which makes her characterizations typical, though probably true. One character stalks Sarah around Paris, staring at her from around corners and alleyways, then after her death he steals her head from the museum exhibit and lives with it for a year. The psychology behind his behavior however, is not explored, which may or may not be important, yet would have been an interesting exercise.

Chase-Riboud definitely has an agenda here. Telling the story of Sarah Baartman, a personage little known, is definitely one goal. She is none to subtle in her anti-colonial sentiments. She conjures the European fascination with the exotic, while exploring the theme of the “other” through Sarah Baartman and another female character in the book.

Some readers may find an agenda in a novel not to their liking, preferring only to be entertained. Yet, the novel as an art form is the perfect vehicle for raising awareness. Similar to authors of black protest novels in the 1940’s such as Ann Petry and Richard Wright, Chase-Riboud carefully chooses her issues and her subjects. In this case they are one in the same. She chooses as her subject an obscure, yet intriguing personage that reminds us that even “those-things-that-should-have-never-been-born” have hearts and souls. And that sometimes things should be left as they are and where they are.

Vanessa F. Johnson, M.A. is a writer and teacher of American Literature and creative writing in Chicago. She is a consultant with the Chicago Area Writing Project. Ms. Johnson is currently working on a historical novel set during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Dragon Blood

Written by David Alan Dickens

Published by CreateSpace

398 pages

Review by Brenda M. Marsh


Dragon Blood is a different kind of paranormal story. Most people associate shapeshifters with werewolves or other animals, but in this case the shapeshifter is a vampire–and a dragon. Samarah is the last of her kind, the last of the Dragon Women. She hunts humans for prey while she too is hunted. Soon the story becomes a thriller as we follow Samarah on her journey to try to save her kind. Will she be able to reestablish her clan, or will she be killed instead?

I am not an avid reader of paranormal fiction, but I liked Dragon Blood from the opening scenes where Samarah is first introduced. There is an intensity about this strong woman character that is intriguing, and the fact that there is a different take on shapeshifters gives the story a unique twist. I have never read about dragons before and I found David Alan Dickens’ take on them engaging. I liked the thriller aspect of the story, and I was taken by Samarah’s story enough to want to keep reading until the end. All in all, I recommend Dragon Blood for anyone who likes thrillers about vampires, shapeshifters, and dragons.


Brenda M. Marsh lives in San Francisco, California where she is working on publishing her first short story collection. She lives with her husband, son, and three dogs.

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Daughters of Rome

Written by Kate Quinn

387 pages

Review by Emma Harrison


From the moment I picked up this novel I was swept up into the world of Ancient Rome. Set in the year 69 A.D. after Emperor Nero’s death, I was captivated by the Year of Four Emperors, a time of chaos in the once grand empire.

After Nero dies the Roman Empire is up for grabs. A bloody coup interrupts the lives of two sisters, Cornelia and Marcella, and now they must navigate the turbulent waters disturbing their previously settled world. Cornelia is a grand Roman wife, and her ambitions are centered around her husband since she has a Lady MacBeth-like quest to become Empress. Marcella is not a social butterfly and she doesn’t have social ambitions like her sister. As blood spills around them, both ladies, and their two female cousins, must make their way in this unsettled world.

I appreciate the fact that this story is told from the point of view of the women. Instead of the women being presented as adornments for the men, in this story the men serve as the backdrop and the women remain the focus. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the history of the era because I know little about Ancient Rome, but the events seemed believable to me as I read. Otherwise, I found this novel to be an inclusive trip into a time that helped set the course for everything that came after it.

Kate Quinn is also the author of the national bestseller Mistress of Rome, which I had previously read and enjoyed. Daughters of Rome serves as a good prequel for that first novel. Quinn’s knowledge of Ancient Rome is obvious, and I’m thankful that she has shared her love of the era through her stories. I’m looking forward to reading her third book, which will also be set in Ancient Rome.


Emma Harrison is a writer who is starting a blog reviewing books, movies, television, and anything else that needs reviewing. Look for her blog coming soon.

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Armor of Light

Written by Ellen L. Ekstrom

Published by ireadiwrite Publishing

180 pages

Review by Emma Harrison


Armor of Light by Ellen L. Ekstrom is a look into the era after the medieval Crusades. George Ascalon is a nobleman newly returned from his adventures in the Crusades, and we see both his personal struggles as well as his larger difficulties as he completes one last task left behind for him by his father. It turns out that George must eradicate one particularly difficult problem from another land. This novel is a unique blend of historical fiction and fantasy, and the details about medieval life helped to make the story seem real. Ekstrom does a good job combining period information with approachable, readable prose. Rather than weighing down the story with too much flavor, the historical information adds the right amount of spice to a well-paced hero tale. I am not usually drawn to books about medieval times or the Crusades, and I’m not a particular fantasy fan, but I enjoyed Ekstrom’s writing and I found enough truth in George’s story and his struggles to recommend this book for anyone who enjoys hero stories.


Emma Harrison is a writer who is starting a blog reviewing books, movies, television, and anything else that needs reviewing. Look for her blog coming soon.

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The Other Boleyn Girl

Written by Philippa Gregory

661 pages

Published by Simon & Schuster

Review by Marian Kensler


The dictum that the past is another country is never better demonstrated than when trying to write a historical novel. The author may be overwhelmed with information on some aspects of their chosen era, but the answers to many key questions will be simply a blank space with a few speculations scribbled under it. The story of Anne Boleyn has many of these frustrating gaps. She was one of the ultimate catalysts of the English Reformation, and as such is an intrinsically interesting figure. Yet her day-to-day personality is murky, and nobody can know for certain such basic facts as when she was born, how many children she gave birth to, or whether she committed any of the crimes for which she was executed.

The Other Boleyn Girl is an attempt to fill in these spaces in Anne’s life and several others, and is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn – Anne’s sister and an even more shadowy figure than Anne herself. Like Anne, her life is filled with question marks. Mary was Henry VIII’s mistress for an unknown amount of time, and there has been speculation that her two children may also have been his. She, like Anne, lived at the French court when young, but opinions vary as to her position there  (though the French King’s nickname for her  – “The English Mare” – suggests a few possibilities). Her birthdate is unknown, her personality a blank. Philippa Gregory has a lot of gaps to fill in telling the story of these two sisters, and has been forced in many instances to make choices between competing theories; for example, she makes Mary the younger sister, although there are many who argue that she was actually the elder, and similarly posits late birthdates for both sisters – around 1506 and 1507, meaning among other things that Mary ends up being married at the age of twelve.  In the matter of Anne’s relationship with Lord Percy, she decides that they were actually briefly married, which is one of several equally plausible possibilities. Similarly, she chooses to believe the accusations that Anne was guilty of murder, and also that she commited incest with her brother George. Many of these choices are the less likely of the possibilities, but all added together they make for a very colorful plot, if one built on a somewhat shaky foundation.

The novel opens with the fourteen-year-old Anne arriving back from France, where she had been maid of honour to the French Queen. Anne is now an expert in flirtation and seduction (learned entirely through observation) and on the lookout for a noble husband. Mary is thirteen, and newly married to William Carey, a solid if unspectacular courtier. Their elder brother George Boleyn is as ambitious as Anne, although he already has the handicap of an unpleasant, albeit wealthy, wife. The entire family is thrilled when King Henry starts to flirt with Mary (who is also lady-in-waiting to Katharine of Aragon). With visions of land grants and pensions in their heads, they hasten her away from her husband and into the King’s bed. She doesn’t sleep much there, nor does anyone else seem to take a breather throughout the rest of the book. George and Anne are busy clawing their way over the heads of their rival family, the Seymours, while Mary has two children by the King, loses William Carey to sweating sickness, loses the King to the predatorial Anne, eventually falls in love with and marries a low-ranking man, and goes off to the country to live in happy and somewhat impoverished obscurity. Anne, meanwhile, falls in love with Lord Henry Percy, a future Duke, and marries him in secret. However, when his family discovers this, they are furious that Percy has thrown himself away on her and appeal to Cardinal Wolsey, who intercedes to annul the marriage. Anne, now made bitter and heartless by the separation from Percy, begins to play up the King while Mary is out of the area. Eventually she convinces him that he should really be married to her, as she – unlike Katharine – can bear sons, and machinates to get Cardinal Wolsey disgraced when the divorce from Katharine doesn’t come through quickly enough. Finally Henry and Anne are married, and Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, presides over the executions of several of her opponents and the poisonings of a few others, and has several miscarriages, the last of which is of an incestuous child fathered by her brother George. In the end, having failed to bear a living son, Anne is accused of witchcraft, adultery and treason and executed along with George and several others.

Mary can do very little but observe throughout most of this story, but even so she is oddly cowlike. While she sounds like a pleasant enough person, she barely seems to have a real character, and unlike the others she does not seem like someone at home in the sixteenth century. Instead, the author has filled her with a quiver of modern sensibilities and made her into the stand-in for a twenty-first century reader. Thus, Mary becomes the King’s mistress – but she is excused of any mercenary intent by being made to actually fall in love with the King. She is portrayed as understanding that family loyalty comes first, and yet when family loyalty causes her to betray Katharine of Aragon several times over, Mary is absolved of even the slightest amount of self-interest and made to do it solely because she fears her male relatives. She is shown balking at the idea of a wetnurse (at which coldhearted Anne tells her that it’s unnatural to get attached to a baby, since it will probably die anyway), and scorning the idea that a baby boy is better than a baby girl. All of these feelings are laudable, but it is unlikely that a sixteenth-century noblewoman would embrace any of them. This is not to say that Mary would not love her children, or that she would not be as fond of her daughter as of her son, but rather that for her, such things as praying for a boy rather than for a girl, or turning her baby over to a wetnurse, would be so ingrained that she probably would not question them any more than she questioned the colour of the sky.

However, The Other Boleyn Girl has many good aspects which counter these and which make it very worth the read. It is written clearly and convincingly, except for occasional annoying lapses into non-period speech (Mary refers to Anne’s “sexy little laugh” which is unlikely, and George Boleyn occasionally prefaces his declarations with “I say” which is more Henty than Henry).  The enormous cast of characters is easy to keep distinguished, and the personalities of the minor characters are interesting; they are real people, not just props to push the plot along. The story moves along at a good pace, despite the fact that the book could handle another editing; for example, there are at least seven references to Anne’s necklace with the pearl pendant of the letter B; one or two references would surely be enough to satisfy those who remember that pendant from Anne’s portrait. Many of the shorter scenes are excellently done – Anne’s demands for Katharine’s christening gown and jewels, the midnight conferences between the three Boleyn siblings (Gregory does a very good job of showing how little privacy anyone had then, no matter what their rank), and of course the constant calculations and plottings against other families.  Henry is well-sketched; his combination of volatile temper, impulsiveness, and need for approval could have come straight from a documentary (less so perhaps the “kissable rosebud mouth” which Mary brashly and anachronistically refers to). Katharine of Aragon, above all, is strong – one thing Gregory emphasizes, with her descriptions of Katharine’s life and routines, is how much stamina she must have had to draw on just to get through the exhausting court life every year, let alone when Henry turned against her. George Boleyn comes across as a very believable older brother – protective of his sisters, but always with one eye open for the main chance.

Anne, unfortunately, is not likeable at any point, but since we’re seeing her through the eyes of her upstaged younger sister, this is not implausible. But it makes it difficult to see why she ever appealed to anyone, and the implication that Anne was turned vicious after her loss of Lord Percy isn’t very easy to believe, since she is shown as being just as cold and nasty before the Percy separation as after it. Jane Parker, George’s malicious wife, is altogether too easy to believe in. Jane Seymour, unfortunately, is a cardboard cutout; smug, pretend-pious, devoid of any redeeming feature such as uncertainty, love, or fear – one at least of which she must certainly have experienced. But Jane is only a bit player in this novel, so that fault can be overlooked.

Altogether, despite the twenty-first-century perspective that creeps in, this book is well worth picking up. It has a good sense of time and place, despite the weak narrator, and if the incest, love affairs, and secret homosexual rings are perhaps a little too operatic to be all believable at once, they still make for a story which is hard to put down. You will not get the most solid history with The Other Boleyn Girl but you will get a pleasant weekend with a painless side-helping of history thrown in.

Marian Kensler is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She is currently working on a novel.

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Blood and Silk: The Hidden Love Story of Mary of Magdala and Jesus of Nazareth

Written by Carol McKay

311 pages

Review by Edgar James Rice


The premise of Carol McKay’s novel Blood and Silk is that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdalene as well as the father of her children. Blood and Silk should come with a caveat: devout Christians beware. If you are steadfast in traditional Christian beliefs, this may not be the novel for you. If you are interested in an intriguing, well researched novel about life during the time of Christ, and you are willing to go where the story leads you, you might find this a good read.

The story begins after Jesus’ death on the cross. Mary Magdalene, now a widow, recounts her tale of betrothal and marriage to Joseph’s son. Through impeccable research and a knack for weaving research and story, McKay tells us about Mary’s life as Jesus’ wife. There is great detail about Jewish life during this time, and I felt as if I were walking alongside Jesus and Mary on their journey from an Essene monastery to Jesus’ call to pastor to the people, his ultimate betrayal, and his death. It is told first person from Mary’s point of view, so we have a chance to imagine this biblical world as Mary herself might have seen it.

This book is not the first to suggest that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. Scholars have been waving that theory about for some time now. In McKay’s version, we see Mary as a dutiful wife and mother. McKay does not present Jesus so entirely differently than we would expect from traditional Christian teachings, yet the idea that Jesus was married at all may be a problem for those who believe he remained single.

I thought Blood and Silk was entertaining and informative. I have always been interested in the Bible from a historical standpoint, and McKay delivers on that point. I recommend this book for those interested in learning more about life, particularly Jewish life, during the first century, and for those who can read a story about a married Jesus with curiosity and imagination. McKay presents the marriage between Jesus and Mary as a love story, and perhaps it was.


Edgar James Rice is a writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He continues to write his first historical novel set during the time of the American Civil Rights Movement.

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Deadly Focus

Written by R C Bridgestock

Published by AuthorHouse

234 pages

Review by Emma Harrison


Deadly Focus is the debut novel from Bob and Carol Bridgestock. Bob is a 30-year CID veteran, and his expertise is evident in this mystery/crime thriller. This book is an insider’s view into British police procedures as well as a glimpse into the personal and family sacrifices police officers have to make in their daily lives. The hero is Jack Dylan, who must maintain himself at a professional level as he tries to bring a child murderer to justice while at the same time coming to terms with his feelings for his partner, Jen. There is an easy, conversational style to the writing—a lot of simple sentences and direct dialogue—though I was engrossed enough in the details of how police work happens in Britain to overlook the simple style. I think readers of police procedural novels will enjoy Deadly Focus. I found the character Jack Dylan intriguing enough to want to know more about him, and since this is the first book in a series I’m looking forward to the next book.


Emma Harrison is a writer who is starting a blog reviewing books, movies, television, and anything else that needs reviewing. Look for her blog coming soon.

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The Dante Club

Written by Matthew Pearl

384 pages

Published by Random House

Review by Katerie Pryor


When I first picked up Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club, I balked at the story. Three of the greatest poets in American literature, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, are hunting for a serial killer who is using punishments from Dante’s Inferno in post-Civil War Boston. Right.

Never mind that Jack the Ripper, the first documented serial killer, is nearly 20 years and an ocean away. Forget that the concepts of psychology, forensic science, and serial killers are largely 20th century developments. And of course, aside from their academic work, their own writing, and creating the first American translation of Dante Aligheri’sThe Divine Comedies, Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell had enough free time to dabble in solving crimes. Uh huh.

But after the first few pages, I set my balking aside. For poets and literary types, The Dante Club is pure historical fantasy – a novel that shakes the dust off of the three poets and uses what if to rewrite their lives as detectives. Their journey through late 19th century Boston, a gaslight world of elitist academics, shell-shocked Union soldiers, and discriminated immigrants, in pursuit of a killer, is exciting and from the comfort of the early 21st century, as exotic and remote as life on another planet. Even if you slept through your college American history or English literature class, Pearl’s complex horror thriller will keep you turning pages.

Boston in 1865 is no stranger to death. The Civil War has just ended and Lincoln’s assassination is recent news. In a city that reports one or two murders a year, however, the discovery of prominent city judge, found dead and covered in maggots, rattles the police. While the police chief is ready to claim foul play, Nicholas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, believes there is something more to the murder.

Across town, Harvard academics Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell along with unconventional publisher J. T. Fields, are part of the Dante Club, a group are translating Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy for publication. With most of Harvard’s scholars studying Greek and Latin texts, there is a general snobbery towards the club’s work on the translation. In the highly competitive academic environment, Longfellow and his colleagues are constantly thwarting the attempts of the academic elite to stop the publication.

When the papers print stories about another murder, a reverend found half-buried, head first in the ground with his feet on fire, the members of the Dante Club recognize his death as one of the punishments in the Inferno. Since few people are familiar with the Divine Comedy, the poets and their publisher are prime suspects. With their translation, reputations, and lives at stake, the Dante Club must work with Rey to find the murderer before he strikes again.

As Pearl’s debut novel, The Dante Club balances a fine line, weaving a murder around American literary figures with a clear crisp prose. Pearl’s fictionalized Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell are ripped from the pages of the canon and brought to life as detectives that could match wits with, well, another detective by the name of Holmes (if Pearl’s fictionalization is accurate, it’s no wonder Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the poet Holmes, also a medical doctor, as one of the inspirations for his detective).

Pearl heightens this element with a tense portrait of Boston in 1865. His descriptions of the university halls, the drawing rooms of Beacon Hill, the snowy dockyards, and veteran’s hospitals provide a mysterious and beguiling backdrop, a historical world unfamiliar and exciting to readers living more than a century later.

An award winning scholar of Dante, Pearl also provides clear explanations of the significance of the Divine Comedy as well as the lives of the poets. When the poets discuss the aesthetics of Dante after they realize what the murderer is doing, you won’t find yourself reaching for Cliff Notes. On the contrary, you wonder why more writers haven’t used the Inferno as the modus operendi of their murderers before.

The biggest complaint about The Dante Club after I read it was I wanted more. In an age when serial killers are common fodder for books and films, you may find yourself wishing for more people to become the victims of the Inferno’s punishments. Nonetheless, The Dante Club is a fascinating read that will leave readers hoping the book’s success will follow the example of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and spawn a sequel.

Katerie Prior is a freelance writer and recently added fiction writer to her credentials. Her first published short story appears in WordRiot.org in June 2003. She also created and maintains the Writer’s Confidant website.

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Mr. Darcy, Vampire

Written by Amanda Grange

308 Pages

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark

Review by Paula Day


Reimaginings of Jane Austen’s novels have become as popular as Austen’s classic novels themselves. Now, with paranormal fiction all the rage, authors have begun reimagining Austen’s beloved characters among the supernatural, including zombies, sea monsters, and most popular of all—vampires. In the hilarious Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford, the author herself is the vampire in question. In the fanciful tale Mr. Darcy, Vampyre it is Elizabeth Bennett’s beloved husband who bites, a secret he struggles to keep from his new wife.

The story begins where Pride and Prejudice leaves off, on Elizabeth’s wedding day to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth and her new husband travel the world, though all is not well for the Darcys. Mr. Darcy is not as loving or attentive as a new husband should be, and though Elizabeth senses that something is wrong she cannot guess why her husband keeps such a distance from her. Finally, after some suspenseful interludes, Mr. Darcy confesses his true nature, that he is a vampire, and Elizabeth accepts him as he is. In the end, Mr. Darcy may be able to overcome his curse and live happily after all.

This supernatural tale was written by Amanda Grange, whose look into Darcy’s inner world in Mr. Darcy’s Diary I enjoyed very much. I was fascinated reading through this curious premise, that one of Austen’s most beloved characters is a vampire, and seeing what that might look like as played out between Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. Grange has an old-fashioned style of writing that does not seem outdated, but rather harkens back to the era of Austen herself, when the way words were written mattered. Mr. Darcy, Vampyre can be recommended simply for Grange’s prose alone. Grange does a fine job weaving the original plot of Pride and Prejudice into this paranormal story, and the aloofness we saw in Darcy in the original novel is now understood as his way of keeping his vampire nature from the woman he loves.

Readers who are not paranormal fans may have a hard time with the plot, but paranormal fans will devour this novel and find it a mysterious, intriguing blend of the popular vampire story with two of Austen’s most beloved characters.


Paula Day is the Review Editor for The Copperfield Review and the Managing Editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Written by Joyce Carol Oates

738 pages

Published by Ecco-HarperCollins

Review by Deanna Northrup


Blonde is a massive biographical novel about the short, fascinating life of Norma Jeane Baker aka Marilyn Monroe. As usual, Joyce Carol Oates writes in an omniscient point-of-view, but in Blondeshe drifts between first person and third person, somehow without it feeling like a mistake. And, inserted almost haphazardly into the narrative are short passages of comments from bystanders or acquaintances. At times, Oates plays a little too free and loose in her lack of tags, making it hard to tell who is talking or thinking.

Then there are the cryptic lines that could be interpreted in many different ways. Lines like: “This was not the first time. It would not be the last” (p33). The last line of a chapter, it is unclear to what it is referring. Later we see that this elusive language is typical of Marilyn’s grandmother and her mother, Gladys:

It was meant to be taken lightly, as some of Grandma Della’s warnings

and prophecies were meant to be taken – if not lightly, at least not literally –

these were hints, like winks; you were meant to feel a stab of excitement but

only that. So Norma Jeane was left to ponder what the truth was, or if in fact

there was a “truth.” (p42)

And Norma is left with a sense of bewilderment and distrust which she will never outgrow.

The changing point-of-view gives the narrative a messy feel, which was undoubtedly Oates’ intention, symbolic perhaps of the messy life of her character. The ease with which Oates moves around inside Monroe’s head exhibits her extensive research, and her sympathetic treatment reveals admiration.

Though most readers know what the end of this story will be, to raise the tension level, Oates repeatedly reminds us of Monroe’s limited time:

These invented scenes. Improvised after the fact. They would plague her

through the remainder of her life.

Nine years five months of that life.

And the minutes rapidly ticking (p311).

This technique, along with frequent name-dropping of well-known Hollywood and historical figures, propels us through the 738 pages.

Oates shows Norma Jean Baker from her tortured childhood through her metamorphosis into Marilyn Monroe and culminates in her 1962 death from an overdose of drugs at the age of thirty-six. Publicly rumored to be a nymphomaniac, Oates’ Monroe was really just a child in search of a parent. Her insane and institutionalized mother had never revealed the identity of Norma Jeane’s father but the girl never stopped needing him and hoping he would rescue her: “Because Norma didn’t have a clue who she was, and she had to fill this emptiness in her. Each time she went out, she had to invent her soul” (p348). Teachers, agents, directors and co-stars, she saw them all as father figures. She even called her husbands “Daddy.” She needed love, especially parental love, to justify her existence: “I need you to love me. I can’t bear it that you don’t love me” (p332). Failing to find that elusive devotion, her search turned to others, but always love was a disappointment: “There’s a curse on the actor, always you are seeking an audience. And when the audience sees your hunger it’s like smelling blood. Their cruelty begins” (p663). Even on her deathbed, her mind does not stray to any of the famous men with which she has been linked. Instead, she dreams once again that her mother is showing her a picture of her father.

Oates portrays Marilyn Monroe as an incredibly gifted actress, desperate for approval but programmed to self-destruct. A really provocative read and well worth the investment of time.


Deanna Northrup holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her novel Trail of Crumbs was a top 100 semi-finalist for the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and her short stories, essays, reviews, and poetry can be found in current or recent editions of Amarillo BayCopperfield ReviewKennesaw ReviewO Tempora! Magazine, and The First Line.

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