Creighton in the Chicago Tribune, reviewing books by Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Drabble

Monday, November 18, 2002 - 12:00

This review ran in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, November 17, 2002.

Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Drabble are not writers whom one ordinarily associates together, even though they are nearly the same age, respect one another's work and have been, for more than 35 years, distinctive voices--as writers and commentators--in the American and English literary scenes respectively. To be sure, Oates has been more prolific. "I'll Take You There" is the 30th novel published under her name (with eight more under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith--not to mention at least 20 short-story collections and scores of other works), whereas "The Seven Sisters" is Drabble's 15th novel.

For different reasons, both women have sometimes unfairly been categorized and dismissed as "popular" writers: Oates for her American seaminess--the violence, brutality, sexual compulsion and sordidness that often characterizes her fiction--and Drabble for her English domesticity--the focus on quotidian lives of middle-class women. Yet neither should be underestimated. Both are accomplished novelists and erudite women of letters. Deeply informed by literary and intellectual traditions as well as by contemporary culture, their works of fiction are complex propositions about the nature of personality. Their latest novels are not only highly readable, surprisingly, they have a lot in common.

Oates' "I'll Take You There" and Drabble's "The Seven Sisters" are relatively short, first-person narratives that expose the problematic characters of their narrators, women who are struggling to make sense of their lives and of their relationships with others, particularly other women.

Early in her career, Oates stayed away from characters recognizably like herself. Rather, her novels focused on male protagonists and their quests for liberation from intolerable confinements, often through violence. Gradually, though, Oates' novels portray a number of intelligent, gifted, sensitive young women who struggle against limitations of their impoverished origins and who awaken to intellectual, or artistic, or sexual potentialities within themselves. "I'll Take You There" mines this quintessential Oatesian subject.

Drabble's novels, in contrast, have, for the most part, chronicled women's (and a few men's) lives, and her protagonists have aged along with their author. In "The Seven Sisters," Drabble carries her portrait of women's lives forward into modern time and late middle age. Her narrator, Candida Wilton, struggles with her awareness of her own inexorable aging and with new realities as a recently divorced woman of reduced circumstances trying to start up on her own in a new urban setting.

Both novelists, then, draw from familiar psychological ground, and both leave behind the larger, more ambitious societal canvases of their middle years, such as Oates' "Bellefleur" (1980), "American Appetites" (1989), "What I Live For" (1994) and "Middle Age: A Romance" (2001), and Drabble's "The Realms of Gold" (1975), "The Ice Age" (1977), "The Middle Ground" (1980) and "The Gates of Ivory" (1991).

Yet this return to familiar ground is not merely a rehashing of old material. Each author goes deeper into that ground. As she does in "Marya: A Life" (1986), Oates in "I'll Take You There" explores, in an unflinching and unsentimental way, the conflicting stresses and strains experienced by a young woman from backcountry origins trying to negotiate a university culture. Unlike "Marya," which develops a fuller portrait of Marya's life, "I'll Take You There" focuses exclusively on the first two years at Syracuse University in the 1960s of a young woman whose experiences parallel in some recognizable ways those of the author. Anellia (a made-up name; she never tells us her real name) tells us frankly:

"At Syracuse, I haphazardly cobbled together a personality out of scraps; like my grandmother's quilts made of mismatched scraps of cloth. You don't inquire into the origin of scraps but only of the shrewd use of which they are made."

And she also admits:

"The personalities I assembled never lasted long. Like quilts carelessly sewn together, I periodically fell apart."

The first section of the novel, "The Penitent," details her infatuation with her chosen sisters--the sorority she joins with disastrous results; the second section, "The Negro-Lover," her infatuation and love affair with philosophy and a black philosophy graduate student; and the third and final section, "The Way Out," her reconnection to her dying father, who had left the family long ago and was presumed dead.

Perhaps most vivid is the sorority experience. Oates captures so well the allure for this motherless, sisterless girl of, "Sisters! Always I'd yearned for sisters of my own" and of the "aristocratic hauteur, authority" of the sorority's house and life. "To live in such a mansion and to be an initiate, a sister of Kappa Gamma Pi, would be, I knew, to be transformed."

But, of course, she isn't. Far from it. Increasingly stressed out by her inability to fit in, or pay her bills, or embrace the meretricious, shallow and bigoted world she is in, she almost unthinkingly shatters her sisterhood by an act of defiance. She tells a returning alumna at a sorority reception that she thinks she is partly Jewish, a disclosure that sends shock waves through the sorority and precipitates her ejection. But like Marya, she knows how to look after herself: "Yet in my distraught state I seemed to know (for always, however agitated, debased, distraught I have been, I've been shrewd enough to calculate how to turn my predicament to my advantage) that, formally de-activated by Kappa Gammi Pi, I would be eligible to re-enter an undergraduate women's residence."

Her acerbic self-awareness contrasts with the circumspection of Drabble's narrator. In "The Seven Sisters," Drabble returns to the unreliable first-person narration of some of her most potently successful early novels. Like Rosamond in "The Millstone" (1965) and Jane Gray in "The Waterfall" (1969), Candida Wilton--although seemingly candid, conversational and accessible--cannot be relied upon by the reader to tell the whole truth about herself and her circumstances. She obfuscates; she periodically disparages her tone ("I have just reread the whole of this diary. I am not proud of it. What a mean, self-righteous, self-pitying voice is mine"); she omits repressed pieces of her life. She abruptly switches to third-person narration and then creates another narrator, only later to disclose her subterfuge. The reader reads the gaps in her account of herself and arrives at a nuanced understanding of the character.

Drabble has always been attracted to chatty and intrusive narrators. Even in her biography of Arnold Bennett (1974), her commentary is arguably more interesting for what she off-handedly interjects about herself than it is about Bennett himself. In her omnisciently narrated novels, she often mimics a genial, all-knowing narrator, a Thackeray or Eliot, but she does so in a tongue-in-cheek way, turning a 19th Century convention into a postmodern device, establishing the text at least in part as a metafiction, a fiction about the writing of fiction: "So there you are, invent a more suitable ending if you can" ("The Realms of Gold"). "I apologize for that intrusive authorial 'I,' which I've done my best to avoid" ("The Peppered Moth"). Those readers who have found such intrusions annoyingly coy should be pleased to see how well they work in this first-person narrative.

Much narrower in scope than many of Drabble's novels, "The Seven Sisters" is filtered initially through Candida's diary, which records the mundane details of a highly reduced life: venturing to the grocery store, negotiating the debris-ridden streets, staring out a window through a flawed glass pane at the London cityscape, even noting such details as the spell check and other features of the computer she is using, and thinking, in particular, about her women friends, acquaintances and three estranged daughters--and not thinking, we learn later, about uncomfortable or unsatisfactory pieces of her past.

The central action of the book is a trip taken by Candida and five women--old and new acquaintances (plus a guide who makes it "seven sisters")--to north Africa and Italy, and their attempt to follow the wanderings of Aeneas they have read about in their adult-education classes on Virgil. The trip is initially idyllic, but gradually various crises intrude and abort their journey. Candida's journey to self-discovery, like Anellia's, however, continues as she, too, reconnects to family--one of her estranged daughters. In so doing she comes to terms with some of the gaps in her accounting of herself, and we have reason to believe she is moving on and moving forward.

With humor, compassion and ironic detachment, Margaret Drabble has created a memorable portrait of an older woman who is constructing a new life with renewed energy and increased self-knowledge. So, too, does Joyce Carol Oates create a vivid portrait of a young woman who is impelled forward by "ceaseless yearning, ceaseless seeking and ceaseless dissatisfaction." Both novels gain considerable psychological resonance from their authors' keen appreciation of the complex dynamics of female identity.

Joanne V. Creighton is president and professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College. She has written books on Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Drabble.