three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-The Gravedigger’s DaughterWhen the Schwart family escapes Nazi Germany and settles in a small town in upstate New York, Jacob, the educated father, finds work as a lowly gravedigger. Demeaned and shattered by their past, he and his wife deny their Jewish heritage as their lives slowly deteriorate. When Jacob inflicts unspeakable violence on his family, his traumatized daughter, Rebecca, now alone in the world, decides to reinvent herself. After a marriage to an abusive beer salesman, she escapes with her piano-prodigy son and becomes Hazel Jones, a woman of strength, character, and social status who must hide her tortured past in order to live fully.
Ecco. 582 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0061236829

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Oates has marveled at the resilient spirit of her grandmother, who triumphed over the terrible violence of her early life to become a loving and nurturing mother and grandmother, and so, too, does Rebecca endure and prevail against the daunting hardships of her life and develop into a person of strength and character. … The Gravedigger’s Daughter is unquestionably one of Oates’ finest novels, rendered in taut, vivid language, with an emotional power some of her novels lack." Joanne V. Creighton

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Some have called this book an urban myth. I see it as a highly personal epic tale, sprawling yet intimate. … It’s obviously a book very close to her heart." Holly Johnson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The reader’s intimation that this huge-handed, league-striding, voracious monster is somehow speaking, whispering, howling through her is what gives to her writing the illusion that it’s all real, that anything messy, maladroit or unsatisfactory in her books is not a fault in her shaping, but a reflection of the faulty world. … This is neither a depressing story nor an uplifting one." Brian Hall

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The writing in the section in which Oates chronicles their courtship and difficult relationship is electric; Oates burrows into Rebecca’s consciousness and renders her experiences with sustained intensity. … Oates’ portrait of a woman leading a double life is masterful." Jenny Shank

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Oates’ epilogue comes to its tantalizing and inconclusive end, I found myself looking back over the novel with mixed impressions. This book is easy to admire, and difficult to love; my reaction was not ‘I really loved this book.’ But it was instead, ‘Wow: What a writer.’" Melinda Bargreen

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Oates achieves success as a storyteller when she overcomes her tendency to surrender to extremes. … The novel’s epilogue, an exchange of letters between Rebecca and a previously unknown cousin, a college professor who has written a book about surviving Theresienstadt … is virtually Dostoyevskian." Lee Siegel

USA Today 3 of 5 Stars
"What is strong is Oates’ compassionate, disturbing portrayal of life in the troubled war years, when immigrants were seen as the enemy by some of their reluctant new countrymen, and of the decades that followed, when assimilation came at a soul-shattering cost." Susan Kelly

Critical Summary

Joyce Carol Oates’s 36th novel proves that more is, sometimes, more. The Seattle Times calls it an "opus," while The Oregonian describes it as her "masterpiece." In a return to upstate New York, the novel, based in part on the life of Oates’s paternal grandmother, carries exceptional emotional heft. While striking Oates’s trademark dark, suspenseful notes at the start, it turns to themes of reinvention and hope as Rebecca journeys through life. The epilogue, when an elderly Rebecca pens letters to a cousin who survived the Holocaust, resounds deeply. A few reviewers cited poor writing, confusing narrative switches, and flat secondary characters, but overall, Gravedigger’s Daughter may be one of Oates’s best novels in years.