by Joyce Carol Oates
In June of 1950, Ariah Erskine and her husband are on their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, New York, and have been married for less than twenty-four hours when she wakes up to find him missing from their honeymoon suite. When she finally finds his suicide note propped up against a mirror in their room, and learns that a man who fits his description was seen throwing himself into the raging waters of the Falls early that morning, she begins a seven-day vigil at the falls that will end only when authorities pull his bloated body from the water. She is kept company during her vigil by Dirk Burnaby–a local bachelor, lawyer, and pillar of the community–and although she doesn’t speak to him, he unexpectedly falls in love with her and decides that Ariah is the woman whom he wants to marry and settle down with. He proposes. She accepts. They marry. They have kids. Their bond is a passionate one, and everything seems to be perfect. Ariah’s first marriage and the death of her ex-husband have forever changed her, though…
[Ariah] would become, through the years, a woman who expected the worst, to relieve herself of the anxiety of hope. She would become a woman of calm, fatalistic principles, anticipating her life with the equanimity of a weather forecast. She would risk (she supposed she knew this, for at her most neurotic she remained an intelligent woman) driving her husband from her by her expectation that he would one day ‘vanish’ from her life.
The landscape of Niagara Falls is changing, the industrial landscape expanding and despoiling entire communities. When Dirk is asked by Nina Olshaker to take on the case of chemical waste dumping in the Love Canal (chemical waste that is endangering the lives of everyone in her neighborhood), he forsakes life-long friendships–and in Ariah’s neurotic eyes, even his family–to take on the case that will end up destroying more than his career. Dirk’s story will end in distrust, greed, and even death; and Ariah will forbid her children to ever speak or think of him again. He has abandoned Ariah just as she predicted he would, and his punishment will be nothing short of never having existed in her life. But she can’t keep her children’s past from them forever without causing more damage than they’ve already experienced, and her children will eventually learn about their history–and the scandal surrounding their family–on their own. The Falls is a drama of parents and their children–of secrets, scandal, grudges, and eventual redemption–and what happens when familial relationships are challenged by outside forces and circumstances.
Joyce Carol Oates does an amazing job of writing about the dynamics of families and their relationships. She nails the intricacies of how family members interact with, and react to, one another (especially in distressing situations); and this has been the case with every book written by JCO that I’ve read. In The Falls, I really liked the decisions she made about what kind of people Ariah’s and Dirk’s children would grow up to be–in relation to their parents and in relation to a past they didn’t even know existed for much of their lives.
I didn’t like Ariah for the majority of the book–she was neurotic, selfish, mean, seemingly uncaring at times, and stubborn. I wanted to yell at her and give her hell for not keeping her family together and for not allowing her children to know about their father and their past. At the same time, I understood that she was just trying to protect herself and her children, and she was doing that in the only way she knew how. If not for her stubbornness, she would have broken down and become a mother who couldn’t take care of her children. I felt bad for her, even when I disliked her so strongly. As I got toward the end of the book, though, I came to really understand her, and though I still didn’t agree with how she decided to handle some things, I could forgive her–as her children did–and I became more sympathetic to her plight. This is another thing that JCO does well–she creates characters that the reader can care for and dislike at the same time.
Dirk was a fantastic character, and I liked him the most. I have so many mixed feelings about the decisions he made, but I’m sure that was intended. He was so noble, but he just couldn’t make everyone happy (as no one can). I can’t imagine having to make the choices he had to make between his family and his job as a lawyer–choices that Ariah, through her selfishness and stubbornness, forced him to make. The way he took on that case, though, and the way he saw it through to the end even though he was fighting an uphill battle against corruption and greed, made my heart swell. For all of his faults and decisions that may not have been the right ones, he was true to himself and stood up for what he believed in, and I have nothing but respect for that. At the same time, I wonder how I would have felt in Ariah’s situation–would I have felt that he was doing the wrong thing by taking on that case? Would I have asked him to stop? Would I have felt like he was forsaking his family in the name of doing the right thing for some random group of people? Would I have felt betrayed by his (platonic) relationship with Nina Olshaker? I don’t know.
And oh, did I feel for their children. I can only imagine how confused they were, growing up with so little communication and information.
This is a good book. I liked that JCO set the Burnabys’ story against the historic backdrop of Niagara Falls in the 1950s and 1960s when massive industrial expansion was threatening the landscape and people’s health in parts of that area. The characters were well-written, the storyline was interesting, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading literary/historical fiction.
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