*May contain spoilers
A Fair Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates is an adult contemporary novel that focuses on a 16-year-old girl named Katya. Even though the protagonist is young, the story focuses on adult themes such as rape, an emotionally damaged person, and a rather disturbing relationship. The story deals with Katya’s psychological state and how far she is willing to go to feel loved.
Katya is working as a nanny for the rich Engelhardts in New Jersey. One day, she is walking the Engelhardt’s two children to the park when she stops to window shop. While she is stopped, she meets Mr. Kidder who is a much older gentleman. He becomes interested in Katya, which seems harmless, and Katya enjoys the attention she receives. Katya is drawn to Mr. Kidder’s lavish life, and she is a bit intrigued by his intentions. After spending some time together, Mr. Kidder requests that Katya pose for his new paintings. These requests make Katya think about what Mr. Kidder really wants from her and what he is willing to do to get his way.
I’ll start off by saying that A Fair Maiden is not for everyone. There are plenty of cringeworthy moments in this novel, and they can make the reader feel uncomfortable. I know I felt that way more than once while reading. By this, I mean the relationship between Mr. Kidder and Katya. The way he addresses her and speaks to her is rather creepy. It gets even worse as the story progresses. Although it’s creepy, their relationship makes a lot of sense based on Katya’s character.
Katya’s character is well-developed. She has grown up in an environment that neglected her. Katya’s mother would rather drink and gamble than deal with her daughter, her father left the family when she was young, and Roy, a “distant” cousin, treats Katya horribly. Katya has low self-esteem, and it makes her a perfect target for others to abuse her. Katya craves some sort of approval from others. She desperately wants a father figure in her life, and she wants to escape her fate of being poor forever. When Mr. Kidder starts showing her attention, she is hesitant, at first, but she jumps at the chance for someone to show an interest in her. Of course, he has his own motivations for this relationship but that is not made clear until near the end.
The ending is a bit surprising. I had a bunch of ideas about what Mr. Kidder really wanted, but I never guessed what actually happened. It adds a more disturbing layer to this story, and I’m not sure many readers will guess his true intentions. I ended up staring at the page after I finished this book, wondering what on earth I had just read.
One of the biggest issues I have with this story is how the rape is handled. I know the reason for these scenes is meant to show how vulnerable Katya is and how she believes the two individuals care for her. However, I didn’t enjoy that there were no consequences for the offenders. They were able to get what they wanted without anything bad happening, and Katya ends up believing everything is fine. At first, she wasn’t happy about the situation, but then she learns to accept it. That’s actually terrible for this young girl. I understand that it is to show how psychologically damaged she is, but I feel there are better ways to show this.
A Fair Maiden is a sad and disturbing story about a relationship between Katya and Mr. Kidder, and it demonstrates how emotionally damaged a girl can be without a good role model in her life. While this story is well-written and Katya is well-developed, it’s not for everyone. The story can really stick with a reader and that might not always be a good thing. I do believe it’s worth reading, but it might not be as satisfying as most readers would like.
My Rating: ★★★