Summary and book reviews of The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls

By Joyce Carol Oates

The Falls
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2004,
    400 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2005,
    512 pages.

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Book Summary

A stunning, major achievement from Joyce Carol Oates, "one of the great artistic forces of our time" (The Nation). A haunting story of the powerful spell Niagara Falls casts upon two generations of a family, leading to tragedy, love, loss, and, ultimately, redemption.  A man climbs over the railings and plunges into Niagara Falls. A newlywed, he has left behind his wife, Ariah Erskine, in the honeymoon suite the morning after their wedding. "The Widow Bride of The Falls," as Ariah comes to be known, begins a relentless, seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for his body to be found. At her side throughout, confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby is unexpectedly transfixed by the strange, otherworldly gaze of this plain, strange woman, falling in love with her though they barely exchange a word. What follows is their passionate love affair, marriage, and children -- a seemingly perfect existence.

But the tragedy by which their life together began shadows them, damaging their idyll with distrust, greed, and even murder. What unfurls is a drama of parents and their children; of secrets and sins; of lawsuits, murder, and, eventually, redemption. As Ariah's children learn that their past is enmeshed with a hushed-up scandal involving radioactive waste, they must confront not only their personal history but America's murky past: the despoiling of the landscape, and the corruption and greed of the massive industrial expansion of the 1950s and 1960s.

Set against the mythic-historic backdrop of Niagara Falls, Joyce Carol Oates explores the American family in crisis, but also America itself in the mid-twentieth century. As in We Were the Mulvaneys, a "darkly engrossing novel" (Washington Post Book World), she examines what happens when the richly interwoven relationships of parents and their children are challenged by circumstances outside the family.

The Falls is a love story gone wrong and righted, and it alone places Joyce Carol Oates definitively in the company of the great American novelists.

The Bride

"No. Please, God. Not this."

The hurt. The humiliation. The unspeakable shame. Not grief, not yet. The shock was too immediate for grief. When she discovered the enigmatic note her husband had left for her propped against a mirror in the bedroom of their honeymoon suite at the Rainbow Grand Hotel, Niagara Falls, New York, Ariah had been married twenty-one hours. When, in the early afternoon of that day, she learned from Niagara Falls police that a man resembling her husband, Gilbert Erskine, had thrown himself into the Horseshoe Falls early that morning and had been swept away -- "vanished, so far without a trace" -- beyond the Devil's Hole Rapids, as the scenic attraction downriver from The Falls was named, she'd been married not quite twenty-eight hours.

These were the stark, cruel facts.

"I'm a bride who has become a widow in less than a day."

Ariah spoke aloud, in a voice of wonder. She was the daughter of a much-revered Presbyterian ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Introduction

Is a relationship borne of a tragedy destined to the same fate? How much power does a place have over its inhabitants? Can a family, once unraveled, become whole again? These are the questions at the heart of The Falls, as Joyce Carol Oates unfolds the story of a family who must free themselves of the past in order to find solace and redemption.

It is June 1950, and Ariah Erskine is on the brink of a new life. Niagara Falls is to be the site of an idyllic honeymoon, yet she finds herself married and widowed in the space of a day when her husband throws himself into the raging waters of The Falls. In a state of confusion, convinced her disastrous wedding night has played a part in her husband's decision to kill ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Jane Ciabattari

In her hypnotic new novel, The Falls, Oates juxtaposes a majestic and dangerous natural phenomenon -- the Falls at Niagara -- with a man-made monstrosity, the deadly witches' brew of nuclear and toxic waste known as Love Canal -- as the threatening elements underlying a family saga of self-destruction and redemption.

Publishers Weekly

In the end, all drama is about family, a character muses, and while the narrative occasionally lapses into melodrama in elucidating this theme, Oates spins a haunting story in which nature and humans are equally rapacious and self-destructive. 

Library Journal - Joshua Cohen

Oates uses the falls metaphor to powerful effect, dramatizing how our lives can get swept up by forces beyond our control. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

This big, enthralling novel recaptures the gift for Dreiserian realism that distinguishes such Oates triumphs as What I Lived For, and We Were the Mulvaneys. It's her best ever, and a masterpiece. 

Booklist - Joanne Wilkinson

From Oates' fevered imagination comes a sprawling, ambitious novel with enough material to fill several books.... This passionate, compulsively readable novel displays the full range of Oates' singular obsessions--the destructiveness of secrets; eccentric female characters given to rapacious appetites and volatile emotions; and the mysterious way that human emotion is mirrored in the natural world. Vivid and memorable reading from the madly prolific Oates. 

Author Blurb Terrence Rafferty
At her best, as in the middle section of The Falls, she's like a contemporary Dreiser, both in her slovenliness and in her power. After 40 years and millions of words, Joyce Carol Oates remains implacable, unstoppable, and if she isn't truly a force of nature that's only because, as in any long relationship between a writer and her audience, there's not much mystery left.

Reader Reviews
Naval Langa

Lucid prose
To start a novel with a disaster is a novelty that is fading its shine perhaps. But the licidity of the prose the author, Joyce Carol Oates has poured onto the pages is wonderful. Its a page turning one.

Coventry

A good book overall. The detail went on and on at times and I found myself skipping over it. This story covers a long period of time, so it is a little long. This is the first book I have read by this author, and I would probably read another.

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A number of reviewers compare Oates to Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945), an American author whose novels depict real-life subjects in a harsh light and, at the time they were written, were often considered to be amoral.

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