Is this one of Oates' lesser works? Depends on which review you read. I tend to find myself nodding along with critics who find it less than spectacular, but even then I had a difficult time putting it down.
It boils down to: do you want to dissect the novel, comparing it to others in the author's oeuvre, or do you want to judge it by its own merits? It begs the question how seriously do you want to deconstruct the book. And I, frankly, find that too damn much work.
A beautiful young, thin, tan nanny from the Jersey shore spends the summer caring for the two children of a family vacationing in a wealthy resort area. Out strolling one day, Katya (the aforesaid nanny) is window-shopping on her way to a park where the children can play. Out of nowhere comes a distinguished looking elderly gentleman, Marcus Kidder, with a head of gorgeous white hair, dressed richly in his linen clothes. Finding Katya in front of a lingerie store he asks her, "And what would you choose, if you had your wish?"
Unsure how to react to this strange old man, Katya eventually jerks her chin toward a buttoned-up Victorian gown, when in reality she'd been looking at a satin and silk set.
And so it begins, this fairy-tale like relationship between an older man of dubious intent and young Katya, fifteen years old with the immaturity that goes along with it. It's flattering, on the one hand, a rich man would pick her out of a crowd. But on the other, the skin crawls a bit. And it crawls much, much more before the book's end.
Marcus puts a sort of spell on Katya, each time he sees her pushing her a little further toward the improper and lurid. And while it seems she would get the hint, something about his obvious affection for her brings out the unloved little girl inside, so much so she goes against her own best instincts, continuing to visit the old man.
This is Joyce Carol Oates doing that thing she does - making us shudder, yet holding the reader spell-bound. It's repulsive, but the line is blurred. Is it crossed or isn't it? Oates makes you decide. And in the end?
* I read a library copy of this book.