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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Oates on fine form - again., 14 Nov 2006
Robert Parkinson "Book Reader" (North West England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Black Girl White Girl (Hardcover)
There is no subject that Joyce Carol Oates seems unable to write about, and in her new novel she once more casts her observant eye on a controversial part of America's past.

The novel centres on the events leading up to the death of Generva Meade's roommate, 19 year old Minette Swift, at the Schuyler Liberal Arts College in the spring of 1975.

Told from a 15-years-on point of view, Generva (or Genna, as she is more frequently referred to in the novel), is looking back at her past, and that of Minette, in order to understand how such a terrible death befell her room-mate.

Initially the two characters seem entirely different. Genna is from a well-connected family. Her ancestors founded Schuyler Liberal Arts College and she is heir to a Quaker fortune. Her father is an infamous and radical lawyer who in the past has supported many activist causes and was deeply involved in the "hippy underground" movement of the 60's.

Minette is at the college on a Merit Scholarship as her family do not have the funds to pay the full college tuition fees. Her father is a minister in a very highly regarded Washington DC church.

As the novel progresses however it is clear that the young women are much more similar than they realise. Each is overtly afraid that their backgrounds will be discovered, and that people will therefore perceive them to be something they are not.

Genna feels trapped by her radical, free-thinking, privileged upbringing and so tries desperately hard to do the non-conventional and befriend Minette, one of Schuyler's few black students.

Minette realizes how poorly prepared public school has left her for life at Schuyler College and so retreats into herself, into her Bible, and consumes so much food that her weight increases greatly. Hiding behind a feeling of defeat Minette accepts all of the sympathy that is offered when she becomes the target of seemingly racially motivated harassment.

In the final third of the novel Oates very cleverly steers the story in a completely unexpected direction, and the ending, which does reveal the cause of Minette's death, is really a summation of what lies at the heart of the novel and it's real message as a work of fiction.

I don't want to spoil the novel by giving too much away but Oates uses the background of Genna's family and the fallout from the end of the Nixon administration to make a very telling point about American life during the `70's. The novel is about much more than just the lives of two girls in their freshman year at college, and this is one of Oates's great strengths as a writer. She uses a simple premise for a story and uses it to make a significant social point or observation.

In a recent interview Oates said that the novel is loosely based on an actual event at an American college, and indeed the book's dedication - in memoriam - "Minette" - gives us a clue that once more Oates is using fiction to pass comment on how history can tell us so much about how life has become what it is today.

It is a fine novel and one I would recommend to Oates fans of old, as well as those wanting to sample something by one of the true giants of modern literature.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Roads to tragedy paved with good intentions, 10 Mar 2009
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Black Girl White Girl (Paperback)
The year is 1974/5. Genna Meade comes from a liberal American family. Her father is a prominent radical lawyer, preachy in private as well as in public life, revered by some and hated by others, and has made a name for having helped draft-refusers from the recently ended Vietnam War. He is often away from home, his whereabouts not known even to his family. Genna's mother is an unhappy and lonely middle aged hippy with a drug problem. Genna herself is a fresher at Schuyler College, a liberal arts women's college in New York state, and in her application form had said she would like to share rooms with someone from an ethnic minority. Her room mate is a black scholarship student, Minette Swift. Minette is an unattractive, unhappy, touchy, fiercely private and intensely religious young woman who rejects friendly approaches, however hard Genna tries; and she is unpopular even with the other black girls in the dormitory of Haven House.

The first half of the novel has little plot development: settings are sharply observed, and it concentrates on bringing to life these people and their relationships with each other, very successfully, if perhaps by means of a little too much repetition. In particular, one begins to wonder how Genna can put up with Minette's repeated rebuffs. She feels protective of her and at the same time is afraid of her, and she feels guilt, inculcated by her father, about being white.

Then, half way through the book, the story becomes increasingly tense and sinister, as both racism and radicalism move more centre-stage. We have been told in the very first paragraph of the book that Minette will die; and yet her last day, graphically as it is described, is not the end of the book. There is an even more horrendous and quite unexpected tragedy to follow in the Epilogue. To say any more would be a spoiler.

A powerful and haunting book which draws you deeply into what it describes.
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Black Girl,/White Girl
Black Girl,/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
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