Synopses & Reviews
"Last time you see someone and you don't know it will be the last time. And all that you know now, if only you'd known then. But you didn't know, and now it's too late. And you tell yourself How could I have known, I could not have known..."
Nikki Eaton never thought much of herself as a daughter. Still single at thirty-one, and entangled in an affair with a married man, Nikki remains a source of consternation to her family. Her older sister, Clare, with her handsome husband and cute kids, is the more mature, more reliable, more conventional daughter. And while their mother, Gwen, adores both of her daughters, she disapproves of many of Nikki's choices, and is open about wanting to see her settle down into a life that could bring her lasting happiness.
Following the unexpected loss of her mother, Gwen, Nikki's identity is transformed by her profound grief. Over the course of a tumultuous year of mourning, as she confronts her true feelings about her mother and her sister, and what it means to be a daughter, Nikki comes to understand herself and what she wants in life. Her emotional journey brings sorrow, illumination, wisdom, and even from an unexpected source a nurturing love.
"Oates's latest returns to upstate New York's Mount Ephraim, the setting of We Were the Mulvaneys, Oates's 1996 novel a 2001 Oprah pick about one family's privilege and decay. This time, Oates turns to the middle class: narrator Nikki Eaton, 31, is a reporter for the smalltown Beacon and her family's black sheep. She's having an affair with a married DJ; she barely tolerates her widowed mother, Gwen, and her homemaker sister, Clare. As the novel opens, Nikki arrives at Gwen's Mother's Day party with newly spiked, 'inky-maroon' hair and contempt for Gwen's cooking, one-story house and endless munificence to her ragtag guests. Two days later, Gwen is murdered by an ex-con. Chronicling Nikki's year following Gwen's death, the novel includes some wonderfully precise emotional observations. But more often the prose sags beneath the weight of banal information and a story line too redolent of pulp. Naturally, the 'swarthy' police detective investigating Gwen's murder initially seems repulsive, and naturally, in the novel's final pages, Nikki thinks: 'I had not noticed in the past how strong his profile was.' There are no surprises, that's for sure. And yet the novel is so conventional and relentlessly detailed that it can't help showing its characters behaving in ways that resonate. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This time around, Oates, one of America's greatest writers, has not written one of her 'broad views' into American society, but rather one of her intimate portraits of family relationships....Recommended..." Library Journal
"[T]he novel becomes irrationally bloated; on virtually every page, we sense Oates's desperation to extend this banal premise, overwriting, incessantly over-detailing." Kirkus Reviews
"Oates is at once erotic and scientific....This almost hallucinatory precision...makes for a profoundly involving and haunting explication of grief, followed, finally, by a renewed embrace of life." Booklist
"While the emotional pitch of the story is high, the characters never quite seem to get there....But Missing Mom does remain true to Oates' style, dropping thoughts, metaphors and meaning into a pool of prose for the reader to swim through." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Oates's grip on crime, violence and the long-buried is sure, but Missing Mom is actually more disturbing in its relentless, dead-on accretion of small-time, small-town, middle-class details. Oates piles them on with pitiless virtuosity." New York Times
"If you've lost a parent, this is an excellent book to read for understanding, but not for forgetting." Dallas Morning News
"Missing Mom is ultimately a combination of the precisely realized and the banal....Loyal fans will probably ultimately enjoy this novel, and for the rest of us, well, we won't have long to wait." Christian Science Monitor
From the bestselling author of The Falls comes the story of a single, 31-year-old woman who undergoes a tumultuous year of mourning after the unexpected loss of her mother.
From Joyce Carol Oates comes this candid, intimate, engaging, and personal new novel.
Nikki Eaton, single, thirty-one, sexually liberated, and economically self-supporting, has never particularly thought of herself as a daughter. Yet, following the unexpected loss of her mother, she undergoes a remarkable transformation during a tumultuous year that brings stunning horror, sorrow, illumination, wisdom, and even -- from an unexpected source -- a nurturing love.
Last time you see someone and you don't
know it will be the last time. And all that
you know now, if only you'd known then.
But you didn't know, and now it's too late.
And you tell yourself How could I have
known, I could not have known.
You tell yourself.
This is my story of missing my mother. One
day, in a way unique to you, it will be your
From Joyce Carol Oates comes this candid, intimate, engaging, and personal new novel.
Nikki Eaton, single, thirty-one, sexually liberated, and economically self-supporting, has never particularly thought of herself as a daughter. Yet, following the unexpected loss of her mother, she undergoes a remarkable transformation during a tumultuous year that brings stunning horror, sorrow, illumination, wisdom, and even—from an unexpected source—a nurturing love.
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About the Author
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature and the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. When Nikki describes hers as "a slapdash kind of life, unmarried, unsettled-down ... [a] life of drift and impulse," what does she mean, and how does her remark connect to her family's perception of her?
2. "Wasn't Gwen Eaton known ... as uncomplaining, un-self-pitying, good-natured and good-hearted and indefatigably optimistic?" Does Nikki's description of her mother seem consistent with your impressions of Gwen? What do Gwen's actions at her home on Mother's Day reveal about her personality and her relationship with her daughter?
3. Two days after the Mother's Day celebration, what is the first hint that Gwen might be in serious trouble? How do Clare and Nikki decide to address their concerns? Describe the scene that Nikki finds on entering her mother's house. What emotions did this scene elicit in you?
4. When Nikki finds her mother in the garage, what does she first imagine has caused her accident? What does she hallucinate at this moment of crisis? Did you interpret her hallucination as a manifestation of her shock, or were you inclined to believe (with Nikki) that her mother might still be alive?
5. "Something ruptured and began bleeding my chest when I bent over my mother, when I saw my mother in that way." How do Nikki and Clare experience "survivor guilt" in the aftermath of their mother's murder? How does Nikki's discovery of their mother's body affect her relationship with Clare?
6. What is ironic about the identity of Gwen Eaton's killer? How was Gwen introduced to him? What prompts his vicious attack?
7. Discuss Nikki Eaton's relationship with the soon-to-be-divorced Wally Szalla. How does she feel about being "the other woman"? How does Gwen's opinion of Wally continue to impose itself on Nikki's feelings for him, even after her death?
8. What do you think explains Nikki's decision to move back into 43 Deer Creek Drive? How do her mother's friends react to Nikki's taking up some of her mother's habits -- swimming at the pool, baking bread, visiting Aunt Renate? How do these activities contribute to Nikki's grieving process?
9. What role does Detective Ross Strabane play in Nikki's preparation for the murder trial? Do his attentions seem immoderate? Were you surprised that he and Nikki became intimately involved, or did their relationship seem inevitable, in some sense?
10. At the end of Missing Mom, Nikki has undergone a year without her mother. What kind of emotional journey has she undergone? Were there any aspects of that trajectory that you found unexpected? How has Nikki changed in the course of that year?
An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates
Missing Mom relates a daughter's worst nightmare: discovering that her mother has been brutally murdered. How did you arrive at this idea for your book?
When my brother called to inform me, on the morning of May 22, 2003 that our mother Caroline Oates had died suddenly of a stroke, it was a shock from which, in a way, I have yet to recover. This "worst nightmare" is an experience I needed to objectify in a way that could be communicated dramatically.
What were you most interested in exploring in this novel?
I was most interested in exploring the ongoing process of grief and mourning which remain a mystery even to those who have experienced it.
Gwen Eaton is a woman of many talents, no enemies, and a seemingly boundless desire to reach out to others in need. Is she modeled on any women you know?
Gwen Eaton is very much modeled after my mother Caroline Oates, even including her physical characteristics. Her "upbeat" personality, her personal warmth and instinct for sympathy, her homemaking skills, cooking, sewing, gardening, "arts and crafts" of every kind, friendships with other women, and all the rest. Both she and my father baked bread. Like Gwen Eaton, my mother was enormously supportive of my writing; she and my father kept scrapbooks something like those kept by Gwen Eaton of her daughter Nikki's journalism career.
In Missing Mom, Gwen Eaton hires a down-on-his-luck Ward Lynch to help her with some projects around the house, much in the way that Elizabeth Smart's family hired her abductor off the street to work at their home in the months prior to her well-publicized kidnapping. Was this case (or others like it) on your mind when you wrote Missing Mom?
No, I wasn't aware of this parallel. (I think I might have written Missing Mom before the Smart case.) However, it's a depressingly familiar irony: the naïve charitable intentions of "good" people who believe that, consorting with people very different from themselves, they can overcome the antisocial or hostile tendencies in others.
You've described "the emotional interdependence of humans and animals" in the context of the characters in your novel, We Were the Mulvaneys. Can you discuss the role Smoky the cat plays for Nikki in Missing Mom?
Smoke, Gwen's beloved if not very attractive tom cat, is one of Nikki's strong links with her mother. He is a cat you come to love if you love him despite some of his quirky traits, as we come to love people who are far from perfect.
At the beginning of the novel, your narrator states: "This is my story of missing my mother. One day, in a way unique to you, it will be your story, too." Is Missing Mom meant to appeal especially to anyone who has faced or is facing the prospect of losing her mother?
The relationship between parents and children, but especially between mothers and daughters, is tremendously powerful, scarcely to be comprehended in any rational way. Among many of my friends and acquaintances, I seem to be one of the very few individuals who felt or feels no ambivalence about my mother. All my feelings for my mother were positive, very strong and abiding.
Nikki's last words to her mother are: "Mom, you are not me, and I am not you." But in the process of grieving for her mother, Nikki effectively transforms herself into her mother by moving back into her house and taking on many of her activities. Why does Nikki react this way?
Nikki comes to realize that her mother was actually right about many things that Nikki couldn't acknowledge at the time. Nikki had been living an essentially superficial, immature, as she says "slapdash" life out of a fear of not measuring up to her mother (whom everyone in Mt. Ephraim felt they knew, completely); by the novel's end, Nikki's confidence has been wounded, and she understands how much she needs others, how emotionally dependent she it. (A realization that is true for most of us.)
The romantic prospects Nikki has in Missing Mom Wally Szalla, Sonny Danto, her brother-in-law, Rob Chisholm, and Detective Ross Strabane seem secondary compared to the importance of Nikki's focus on her mother in the aftermath of her murder. But the end of your novel suggests that her relationship with Strabane enables Nikki to get over her grief. What about Strabane allows Nikki to get over her loss?
Strabane is the ideal man for Nikki: devoted to truth-seeking and protecting; an individual of integrity; both like and unlike her own father; stubborn, courageous, loyal, steadfast. "A man who doesn't easily give up" a man whose taste in clothes will require her attention.
What is your next project?
My next project is High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories 1966-2006.