For those of you who don’t know me, Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. I say “one of” because she was the sole favorite, until I started reading more Margaret Atwood, and now I must call it a tie. However, JCO, as I like to (
affectionately lazily) call her, has a much larger back list than Atwood does.
I tend to read about 2-3 JCO a year, which is terrible, as she releases more books than that! This is my second JCO this year (this month, actually). I thought I’d share this one with you.
A Sentimental Education is a typical, yet softer JCO. As she’s written through the years (1963 to the present), her stories have become a little bit darker. They always have a sinister, dark, gothic, melancholic undertone, but I find that her books have become even more so the more current the work. Since A Sentimental Education was written in 1982, it is less brooding (though still broody!) than some of her more current works.
Her typical themes exist in all six of these short stories- broken love, improper lust, clashing relationships and dark, inner thoughts. JCO sits right in the brain of each of her central characters, writing down the uncomfortable, dark, questioning things that humans of all types sometimes think.
These stories include a woman’s response to finding her husband has been cheating, a forbidden relationship between cousins, a man who witnesses a murder, a man who seeks his own destruction, an illicit affair, a celebrated writer meeting her lover’s son years after the affair.
The title story is the longest one of the set. The title of the book quite descriptively illustrates the underlying theme of each short story. Sentimentality occurs when either good or bad things happen (in the case of these stories, more bad than good). This sentimentality also leads us to approach new situations differently than we might have prior to the incident. How does a woman move on from her husband and a marriage for which there was years of sentiment? How does a man overcome his fear of an alley? How does a young man remember his young cousin? This is the education these characters receive, as will the reader.
As a side note, I also found the title story quite similar to the JCO novelette First Love: A Gothic Tale which I read earlier this month. Perhaps the short story A Sentimental Education felt unfinished or unresolved; the scabs weren’t quite peeled back enough or poked for JCO. Both involve cousins sharing a home with meddlesome aunts hovering around. Both involve a house on the beach with areas and rooms not to be visited. Both involve an older, bookish, introverted, older male cousin working hard on the career path laid out for him while navigating the misguided feelings he has towards a younger, female cousin. Both involve the hint of sexual assault (trigger warnings); one a louder hint than the other.
With that, don’t read JCO if you are depressed, sad, melancholy, or have had any sort of trauma in the past, especially from a family member. That being said, she delves into the depths of the human mind, the horrible thoughts we have sometimes, and how our mind can control our actions in ways we can’t prevent.