Joyce Carol Oates: Rape – A Love Story (2003)

Rape: A Love Story begins with what is almost unspeakable. It tells of the brutality and cowardice that overtakes the city of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of an attack on a woman and her young daughter. A diamond-hard dissection of modern mores, it is also the tale of Teena and Bethie’s silent champion – a man who knows the meaning of justice. And love. 

It’s a provocative title, Joyce Carol Oates has chosen for her book: Rape: A Love Story. Maybe it’s because of titles like this that people are divided when it comes to her work. I don’t know. This is maybe the fifth of her books I’ve read so far and every time I read her I think I want to read every thing she has ever written, because even books which are not as good, like The Falls, are still so much superior than most other books. Some like Solstice are of a rare beauty, others like Foxfire and Rape are bound to trigger intense discussions.

Rape tells the story of a bad decision. One single moment which changes a life forever. Because it is a beautiful night, because she comes home from a party and is happy, Teena decides to walk through a park at midnight, together with her 12-year-old daughter. It’s a decision that shouldn’t have any major consequences but it has. She is followed by a group of young men, attacked, raped and almost beaten to death. Her young daughter escapes and gets help. The police officer who finds her is a veteran of the gulf war, a quiet, silent man. He knows the young widow and likes her very much. He is incredibly shocked about what happened to her and the girl. Bethie hasn’t been raped but beaten as well.

This is only the beginning of the story, the first few pages. What follows is maybe less violent, but not less shocking. The town – Niagara Falls – turns against Teena. Rumours start to spread. Was she not too good-looking, too sexy? Did she not like men too much? There is gossip and finally threats. Her prosecutor, a woman, is ridiculed in court, everybody turns against them.

The novel is told in alternating voices, changing points of view. Many of the chapters are second person narratives. A voice seems to be talking to Bethie, the young daughter. I found the novel masterful and impressive. Especially the end. It’s an analysis of violence, guilt, justice and retribution. It doesn’t end like we would expect it will. Of course not, remember, there is the subtitle – A Love Story.… It almost feels as if Joyce Carol Oates wanted to say: “If we cannot have justice in real life, let’s at least have it in our books.”

I found it particularly eerie that Rape had a lot in common with one of the stories in Ferdinand von Schirachs’ second collection Guilt which I just reviewed here. The perpetrators even when they are known are not always brought to justice if evidence is lacking or the defence lawyer is better than he should be.

Another reason why I found the book so good and important is because this is such a universal topic. Something I sometimes fear that will never go away. I have two girl friends who have been raped. None of them reported the crime. One was drunk when she came home, wearing a leather skirt and afraid they would tell her it was her fault. The other one had chosen a way which is known for being a bit dangerous and felt she had deserved it for her stupidity. I have been followed twice and could run away and was once attacked in broad daylight. If my dog hadn’t chased the attacker… I don’t know.  On top of that there has been a series of rapes since a couple of months in the city in which I live. Every weekends since a few months young women are raped on their way home. Sometimes relatively early, around 18.00, sometimes late at night. In many different areas of the city, by one or more men. It’s appalling.

The book captures this and much more so well. One single moment changes everything, a decision that wouldn’t have an impact if we were living in a healthy world, a world in which women and girls would not constantly have to fear being attacked. It manages to say a few powerful things about going to war and being a soldier as well. A short book. But so complex.

These numbers from may be of some interest Facts About Violence. They only look at the US which isn’t even one of the most violent places for women to be.

43 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates: Rape – A Love Story (2003)

  1. Caroline: I am NOT a JCO fa, but I have to admit that her short story Where are you Going, Where have You Been? (made into the film Smooth Talk)is remarkable.

    • Yes, it is, and this book is very similar. I think she has written an ind^credible amount of good books but probabaly alos some that were not that good. I haven’t read any those yet.

  2. I’ll be honest, when I read the title of the book I made a snap judgment and thought I would find it disgusting. But as I read your review I realized her point. Rape is all too common in our society. And blaming the victim, which I find despicable, still happens in 2012. It makes me so angry. No man or woman deserves to be raped. Period. I haven’t read any of her works, but I think you’ve reviewed other works by her and I’m curious about her as a writer.

    I’m sorry to hear about your friends and your own traumatic experience. These scars can never be healed completely. One of my friends in Boston was almost abducted by some guys in a truck. She is still scared. And just the other night, some drunk followed me as I was walking Miles and my fears of rape or worse flooded my mind. Fortunately a group of people approached and I was able to duck into my flat quickly. Miles is not an attack dog.

    Thanks for the review. I may give it a chance now…it is funny how we can make such snap judgments and miss out on things.

    • I understand your reaction but I thought this is an amazingly well written and very important book. I never go out without sprays and stufff and since this series of rapes have started where I live, I don’t go anywhere alone anymore as soon as it is dark.
      I think it’s absolutely horrible that one part of humanity has to be frightened after dark and, on top of that, is getting treated so badly when they report it. I’m sure it’s a bit better but when you see how little punishment they get. Or when you knew the attacker…
      The guy in the forest shocked me no end. It was 2pm, broad daylight and all of a sudden he came out of nowhere. She wasn’t an attack dog but she was huge.
      I loved Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice and Foxfire is fascinating as well. Many of her short stories are very good. I never understood why some people don’t like her. I’d like to read much more of her.

      • Be safe. There was a series of rapes in Boston for a few years while I lived there and it was terrifying. It is a horrible thing and I hope the horrible person in your area is found and convicted. This is something I can never understand.

        • It’s not one person, it looks as if each of the crimes was committed by another rapist which is even worse because that means that criminality is raising. For the individual victim it doesn’t make a difference but for the population as a whole it does.

  3. It is a horrifying story, Caroline, but it is perhaps shameful how blase we are becoming to the problem of violence against women. going out at night is dangerous. Being too open is dangerous. being a woman is dangerous. we just accept it, very few question why 😦
    Movies and books often use the theme of rape, but rarely do they manage to do it meaningfully, actually exploring the horror the victim goes through afterwards. I’m glad this one could move you. I’m going to check it out.

    Do visit 🙂

    • I think she managed very well. Not sure reading it would encourage a victim to report the crime but it can make people aware that for many women the horror starts all over again when they go to the police.
      I’ve heard people say before, well that’s just the way it is, be careful. While I do think we need to be careful, I don’t think we should see this as a given.
      I read your King review but was on the wrong computer and couldn’t leave a comment, I’ll do it later. 🙂

  4. Whatever Oates’ intentions, Caroline, I find her title cheap and underhanded in its attempts to attract attention through sensationalism. I mean, what does she do for a followup: The Holocaust: A Love Story? At best, the title would seem to do a disservice to the seriousness of her work.

    • Yes, I see exactly what you mean and think it’s that type of title (sensationalist) that can put people off. When you read the book you see the title in another light. I cannot go into details because it would spoil the book too much. Just this much, there is no love story between the rapist and the victim.

  5. I would never buy a book with such a title unless it comes with a good recommendation. Like Richard, I find it cheap and not provocative but simply raw marketing to attract a feminine readership. I see they kept it for the French edition. (Collection Point, not a good sign, IMO)

    I wasn’t fascinated by Sexy, the only book I read by her. But I remember you telling me that it was YA, so perhaps the style was less polished. (even if, in my opinion, you don’t have to write less well because you’re writing for a young readership.
    In a way, it touches the same themes that the ones you mention here: gossips, how a “madding crowd” can turn someone’s life into hell.

    On the one hand, I’m ill at ease with this, it sounds like a bad reportage on TF1. On the other hand, I trust your reading tastes…

    • Emma, it really is excellent and I did read an amazing review somewhere. The perosn who reviewed it, unfortunately I have no clue who it was, did NOT mention the subtitle, so when I got it I was a bit puzzled. After reading it, it came together and I liked it. It’s like a spotlight. I have no idea what kind of perosn Joyce Carol Oates is. I know she doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics and that violence against women is one of the most important.
      I agree, you should write as good for younger people as for adults.
      I searched the internet yesetrday and saw that even the guardian wrote a raving review.
      I don’t know for example why Guy doesn’t lie her or what he has read. She is a author people easily dislike which for me menas she really triggers strong emotions.

      • Let’s say she seems to go into topics that need an excellent writer not to be too sensational or cheap or soapy (I’d say “larmoyant” in French)
        It could make a good film or a horrible one, the difference depending on the director.

        • I would say she is an excellent writer but not a comforting one. I’ve read reviews that stated they didn’t like this or that book but never did they not like it because it wasn’t well written. Didn’t you read Sexy in a translation? On the other hand, just like Balzac, she is extremely prolific and writes huge tomes, one after the other. I didn’t like The Falls because I thought it felt like her imagination was let loose. It would have needed some editing.
          I know that her memoir caused intense reactions as well. I think the fact that she can provoke such reactions shows how important the topics are. And she is a feminist. Funny that that fact still enfuriates people.
          Btw – you were spammed again.

  6. This book sounds far better with another I remember by her which deals with the same subject: We Were The Mulvaneys. I was horrified in that novel because the young victim’s family practically blames her, and certainly ignores her…it was heartbreaking. I wonder if Joyce has an issue with rape on a personal level since it’s a recurring theme for her. Well, it’s certainly applicable to our world today. I’m glad to know that this particular novel is more hopeful than the other one I read by her.

    • The beginning is very bleak. Horrible but the outcome is hopeful. I meant to read “We Were the Mulvaneys”. I was wondering as well whether she has had a personal experience. Thsi topic is all over her work.
      I think what she masterfuly shows in this book is that even if you have survived the rape physically,the ordeal is not over. And the way it is constrcted, with all those voices. I was amazed.

  7. Stories like these,which as your real life examples illustrate, are a reflection of reality, remind me of the thin and somewhat illusionary veneer of civilized behavior that exists everywhere. Even in our so called advanced industrialized democracies, there are monstrous people everywhere. Obviously these include not only the direct perpetrators but the “average” citizens who are often very quick to blame the victim. Though I am not naive, sometimes I wonder in horror how in the twenty – first century, people can act like this.

    Be safe.

    • Thanks, Brian. I don’t know what’s going on in the head of a man like that. In the book it’s due to drugs but that alone doesn’t explain it.
      It’s amazing how often te victim is still blamed. For wearing the wrong clothes, going the wrong way, not being able to defend herself…

  8. I will give her credit – I thought she very clearly showed that the brutal attack was not the fault of the victim, that the townspeople were wrong to turn against her. The attack was solely the responsibility of the perpetrators. It was not a mistake to walk through a park at night, even after a few drinks. The only “mistake” a rape victim makes is being in the presence of a rapist. And of course, there is no way to know when you are in the presence of a rapist.

    However, I really, really disliked this book. The embrace of vigilantism, the white knight swooping in…ugh. Totally creeped me out.

    • I thought the best thing was how she showed that one tiny decision can change a whole life.
      It’s interesting that you felt so different about the vigilantism. I didn’t read him as a “white knight”, although, now that you say it, yeah why not. I think what she tried to say with the portrait of him, is that even a man, capable of violence, who has been taught how to kill, can find what happened revolting, I thought what she tried to say was that there is no “rapist type”.

  9. I also read We Were the Mulvaneys and thought it was brilliant. That said, I’m reluctant to tackle another Oates novel because it takes more energy than I’m willing to invest right now. Her writing can haunt and disturb for a long time.

    So sorry to hear you had that experience, Caroline. I’ve had a couple close calls and it changed the way I do things. I never go out alone at night anymore and I am very alert if alone in the daytime.

    • I’m glad to hear you liked We were the Mulvaneys. I would really love to try it. She can write disturbing things but not only. Solstice is so beautiful, haunting and weird. I always feel she captures complexity and conflicting emotions very well.
      It’s sad really, we have all had to learn to be very cautious. I hoestly don’t know whether I would have the strength and the courage to report it.

      • I think you’d enjoy Mulvaneys, Caroline–a very engrossing read. The mother in the story was maddening beyond belief.

        I feel the same way about reporting such a crime. The victim is on trial as much as the perpetrator.

  10. I also really like Joyce Carol Oates’ writing (the few I’ve read) and this one sounds very much worth reading. I hadn’t heard of the others you recommended (Solstice, Firefox) so will have to try those ones too. I thought I’ll Take You There was excellent, as well as a short story collection called Faithless. I think she writes about bleakness and violence very well.

    What’s happening in your city sounds terrible. I am sometimes surprised when I realise how much we (women) have to be aware of these kind of possibilities all the time: having to be cautious, not going to certain places alone or at night etc.

    • I highly recommend it. I see why people would think the title is in bad taste. It was risky and could have gone wrong but I think it worked. I loved Solstice. I hope you can find it and will like it as well.
      I’ve read several of her short stories and collections.She also does ghost stories well. I’ll have to look up I’ll Take You There. Thanks for telling me.
      I have no idea how this could happen in my city. It’s a small city 200000 inhabitants. The police start to look really bad, they have no idea. All you can do is be extra careful.

  11. We live in a rape culture. The fear of rape is instilled in girls and it’s not something we ever lose, even as old women. I borrowed this book from the library a while ago, but I never got around to reading it. I have read some of her other books and think she is a talented writer, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read this one. I have listened to so many women talk about being raped and very few of them have reported the crime, because they know they will be “shamed” by the judicial system, their family, their partner, their friends even, because rape is seen as being the woman’s “fault”, that she somehow “asked for it” to happen by transgressing the “rules” that govern women’s behaviour. It’s a fallacy that women are free in the West. I live opposite the beach, but I never go there on my own, because men sometimes lurk in the sand hills and it’s creepy knowing they’re there. (A woman was raped recently on one of the beaches in Perth, and the man killed himself the next day.) I have been accosted after finishing work at night, and while walking my dog in daylight. I have been grabbed a few times in parks, and once a man hid in the building where I worked and tried to lock me into a room with him, but I was able to fight him off and escape, but it could have ended differently. I think all women can relate to the fear of being raped, and I guess this is what Oates was tapping into and bringing to the fore in her book.

    • I would be interested to hear what you think of it. There is more than just the title which is problematic but I still liked that as well.
      I agree, it’s a universal phenomenon and while this should make it more shocking, it seems many just think “deal with it”.
      I live near a park and just like you and the beach, I cannot go there. Whenever I did, something dodgy happened.
      When people tell you (mostly men) you just have to be careful and you will be fine they tend to forget that you loose a great deal of your freedom in this.
      One of the worst situations I’ve been through was in Paris, on the Père Lachaise cemetery where I was chased by a guy through the grave stones. I hid behind a vault just to bump into him when turning around.
      The title of the book is questionable but I think she wanted it to be violent and it is and once you read it you will see it has a lot to do with the perpetrator’s immunity. It’s not uncommon that rapists walk. Schirach describes such case. Also a gang-rape and all of the rapists walked, nobody was convicted.

  12. Thank you for the review, Caroline.
    If I read this book by myself, I would have ended up hating all the people who are blamming her! and might be too furious to continue.
    Why do people have to blame it on the rape victim. I think that is a sick feeling. Here in my country, even the ones who are wearing hijab had become rape victim too…they have covered their body from head to toe but still got raped. It’s not always woman’s fault, really!!!

    so sorry to hear about your friends and your own experience…hope it’ll never happen to you.

    • Thanks, Novia.
      Yes, it is an infuriating book. While I think women wearing mini skirts shouldn’t be blamed for being raped, your examples show that it doesn’t really have anything to do with that, that’s just an excuse. The day I was attacked when walking the dog, I was wearing something extremely “tame” according to European standards, almost like a school uniform. People told me later that this was the reason. Because I looked like a helpless girl. Now what?
      It’s our society which produces men like that. Unfortunately not reporting it, doesn’t make it any better.

  13. I haven’t read much Joyce Carol Oates but what I have was very interesting. I felt both repelled and fascinated much of the time, which was not at all comfortable but did make for a unique reading experience. As for the rape culture, there was a story in the papers just the other day about a young female student travelling in London on a late bus. She was made to get off because she didn’t have the 20p necessary to get to her destination and none of the passengers would give it to her. Walking home that night she was raped. These sorts of horror stories thankfully do not happen often, but traumatically for those involved, they do happen. I think JCO has her eye in for this side of society.

    • It is a theme she returns to again and again. And the fact how one bad move can alter a life.
      I think she is an immensely creative and powerful writer. maybe this title did lack in subtlety but I thought it made sense and was well chosen.
      Id’ like to read more of her novels. She intrigues me as an author.

  14. This is a nasty subject, a nasty crime and I think she purposely is in your face about it–certainly it causes people to talk about it and react (and it certainly divides readers), so in a way you have to give her credit for that–rather than ignoring he subject. I have the same reaction as you–when I read her I think I must read more and soon, but then I always approach her with some trepidation. She is dificult–difficult in the subjects she writes about–to read. I think all the things I’ve read by her have been very dark and I need to be in the right mood for her. Eventually I’ll get around to reading more!

    • I think she has approached the subject from many different sides, so this is another variation on the topic really. I understnad it does disturb some people. I have read her short stories and those few books I mention and none of them was all that dark, this was by far the darkest.
      I like her writing so much but even when it isn’t dark, it’s pretty intense and I need to want that. I’d like to read Missing Mom next. And some of her ghost stories. She might be great for a readalong some day.

  15. I haven’t read anything by Joyce Carol Oates yet but I am definitely going to read this one. Rape is never going to be an easy topic to discuss. But if it generates serious discussion instead of just dismissing it as ‘something that happens’, then I have no issues about the title.

    • I think it does generate very important discussions. I cannot say too much or I will spoil the book completely but the title does make sense.
      I think a lot of the strong reactions about her books is that they make us feel very uncomfortable. But it’s not gratuitous provocation.

  16. Interesting review, Caroline! The book’s title is definitely designed to grab the attention of readers. I haven’t read a Joyce Carol Oates novel yet. Maybe I should try my hand at one of her works soon. I am wondering how the horrifying start to the book can end in a love story. It sounds quite intriguing. Sorry to know about what happened to your friends. It must have been a traumatic experience for them. It was scary to read about your own experience. I can’t believe that we have to be careful when we go out in the afternoon too. What has happened to the world?

    • Thanks, Vishy. You should give Joyce Carol Oates a try but maybe not start with this one. It has some of her trademarks but one of her longer novels would be a better choice. She is so incredibly complex and discovering all the many threads in her novels is amazing. Her characters feel very realistic.
      This was excellent but special. She has written such a lot of books on this topic, I think she wanted to try something different and te title indicates that. Too bad it keeps away some readers.

  17. Excellent review. I finally got around to reading this one, and while it was dark, she has definitely written darker. Daddy Love, which came out this past January, was one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Many of her short stories bring up the emotional trauma that occurs with sexual abuse/rape and don’t wrap up neatly like this novella.

    The title seems provocative but slowly makes sense as you get closer to the end. The “Blame The Victim” mentality & the horror this family goes through being ridiculed in a court of law is sadly still relevant today. I don’t know another writer who can approach this subject matter and not have it come off as exploitation.

    Oates stories aren’t for everyone, they rarely leave you in a good place, but I wouldn’t dare classify them as cheap.

    • Thanks, Connor.
      I see we think about this the same way. I’d never say she’s cheap or going for cheap. I found the title made a lot of sense. It’s terrain she’s been returning to over and over again and I’d say she does it well and clearly, things haven0t changed, we still need powerful stries about abuse and rape. I’d like to read everything she’s written but that will take me a long time. So I hope to get to Daddy Love sooner or later. Thanks for the warning though.

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