My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

December 20, 2008
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My Sister, My Love
Joyce Carol Oates

Harper
12-20-08
Hardcover/562 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-154748-5
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". . . a suspenseful murder mystery you can’t put down."

Joyce Carol Oates’ new book is so disconcerting that I wanted to pick it up with tongs and shelve it early on. However, her nightmarish novel, My Sister, My Love, is a suspenseful murder mystery you can’t put down. It mirrors the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty pageant contestant JonBenét Ramsey. JonBenét’s body was found in the furnace room of her family’s Colorado luxury home by her father. The book is troubling because I couldn’t separate fiction from the grisly reality. My conscious mind replayed the media images of JonBenét’s heavily made-up face with extreme sadness.

In reality JonBenét’s parents and nine-year-old brother became suspects. In Oates’ fictional novel six-year-old Bliss, an ice-skating champion, is murdered in similar circumstances. Her brother Skyler, drunk on a double dosage of his “meds”, fails to respond to his sister’s plea for help—or did he kill her? This story is Skyler’s own “guilt-ridden” personal narrative, heavily footnoted, written ten years after his sister’s death. In a flow of free association, he portrays a horrific and heartbreaking childhood in which he and his sister desperately sought affection from their parents, Betsy and Bix Rampike. Equally disturbing is the aftermath when Skyler is abandoned by his parents and spends nearly a decade in various medical and mental institutions.

Bliss, a shy, finger-sucking child is forced to undergo stressful and painful beauty treatments (hair bleaching, false nails and, at one point, the mother even proposes electrolysis to lift her hair line) and weekly growth and vitamin injections for ice-skating competitions. Meanwhile, the mother sets up play dates for Skyler, an “American-suburban social climbing” scheme. Afraid to disappoint their parents, both children endure pain and humiliation.

Skyler’s narrative, entitled The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike, is a book within a book. His voice navigates the reader through scenes of child abuse, his parents’ dysfunctional marriage and his experience after the murder, in particular the media coverage which he refers to as “tabloid hell.”

Oates inserts her satirical view of wealthy suburban lifestyles—excessive prescription drug use and materialism—into Skyler’s narrative. Like her other works, this book has overtones of violence and human reactions to social problems.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla

 

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This post was written by Kate Padilla