“Marya was a survivor. From the brutal lessons of an abandoned childhood to the darker, more complicated games of the adult world, she rose up to perilous heights of fame. This is her story.*”
On first impression, Marya: A Life reads like an autobiographical work – certainly, there are commonalities between the author and the protagonist, but I would like to believe that all similarities are only coincidental. Like many authors, Oates draws fiction and inspiration from fact and experience. However, many of Marya’s experiences proved too traumatic or heartbreaking for me to desire them to be true. The psychological torture of a teacher and the hair-cutting incident prove two rather disturbing examples that are better left unexplained.
Marya herself, our intrepid, tortured, protagonist jumps out of the page – she is dark, bright, emotional and emotionless girl and woman. Forget three dimensional, Marya can inhabit the mind and soul – Oates created a supremely complicated female character that despite explanation, can baffle the reader. The one downfall of Marya (both character and novel), can easily be pointed to – the one dimensionality of other characters.With few exceptions, each man or woman encountered only acts as a foil to reveal a trait or thought of Marya. Marya expresses her infatuation with Catholicism through her relationship with a sick priest, her love-hate relationship with academia through her discussions and arguments with various teachers in her life. Despite one fascinating character, a novel cannot succeed without a truly impressive supporting cast – somewhat lacking in Oate’s novel.
The construction of the novel seemed a little formulaic – each chapter in Marya’s life opens and closes with finality and often abruptness. Oates concentrates on singular stage in Marya’s life, such as her time as a student, or an affair with a man. When the subject has exhausted itself, the chapter ends and Marya spends little time in contemplating or reviewing past actions. In some ways, I enjoy this structure, it feels like one essay after another, where the only connection is the author. Simple, but effective.
Verdict: A little long, often slow and dry at times, one must exercise patience to finish Oate’s novel. Although Marya: A Life may not be for everyone, any reader searching for a bildungsroman, a feminist work or a soul-searching, contemplative piece of fiction.
*Oates, Joyce Carol. Marya: A Life. New York: Dutton, 1986.