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Dear Husband,

Dear Husband,

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by Joyce Carol Oates

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“[Oates] has once again held a haunting mirror up to America, revealing who we are.”

Boston Globe


The inimitable Joyce Carol Oates returns with Dear Husband—a gripping and moving story collection that powerfully re-imagines the meaning of family in America, often through violent means.


“[Oates] has once again held a haunting mirror up to America, revealing who we are.”

Boston Globe


The inimitable Joyce Carol Oates returns with Dear Husband—a gripping and moving story collection that powerfully re-imagines the meaning of family in America, often through violent means. Oates, a former recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction—as well as the National Book Award, Prix Femina, and numerous other literary honors—dazzles and disturbs with an outstanding compilation the Washington Post calls, “Savage, poetic and ruthless...among the best things she’s ever done.” Dear Husband is another triumph for the author of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, We Were the Mulvaneys, and Blonde.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Lindgren
…savage, poetic and ruthless. Oates deals with characters and themes she has often covered before…but her touch has never been surer, her insights never more piercing.
—The Washington Post
Christopher Benfey
If there's a moral here, it's the anything-can-happen wisdom of what Oates calls "brutal and horrific" fairy tales. You may live amid blooming yellow forsythia in a "white-gleaming aluminum-sided Colonial at 23 Quail Circle" in "the brick-gated community Whispering Woods Estates," but there's absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your 19-year-old son's corpse from turning up in the Tioga County landfill "amid a grinding of dump trucks, bulldozers, cries of swooping and darting birds"…in this strong collection
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The family ties that bind (and choke) are the overarching theme of Oates's grim but incisive collection. The title story takes the form of a rambling letter from an Andrea Yates-like mother after her infanticide is completed, detailing her belief that God has instructed her to drown her five little children who have "not turned out right." "A Princeton Idyll" gives us a series of letters between a chipper children's author, granddaughter of a famous physicist, now deceased, and his sometimes sentimental, sometimes-bitter former maid; the result, in true Oatesian fashion, is dark family secrets and a good deal of denial. In "Vigilante" a son, struggling with his recovery from substance abuse, helps his unknowing mom by exacting revenge on his estranged dad. "Special" is told from the perspective of an elementary-school girl who moves toward desperate action watching her autistic older sister strain her parents' marriage and, worse, garner all their attention. Throughout the collection, Oates seamlessly enters the minds of disparate characters to find both the exalted and depraved aspects of real American families. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

In this collection of 14 stories, Oates examines what, at first glance, seem to be normal family relationships-under further magnification, the cracks appear. The title story, based on the Andrea Yates case, imagines a letter to her husband explaining her actions. In both the "Blind Man's Sighted Daughters" and "A Princeton Idyll," disillusionment and disappointment are revealed in daughters' relationships with their fathers. In three stories, "Cutty Sark," "Landfill," and "Vigilante," mother-son interactions lead to differing consequences. Three more stories, "Heart Sutra," "Death by Fitness Center," and "Mistrial," center on the results of women's decisions on whether to take action. In the strangest of the stories, "The Glazers," a young woman is quite shocked when she meets her boyfriend's family. Once again, Oates's ability to zoom in on an aspect of American life makes for insightful reading and unexpected conclusions. Oates, author of more than 30 previous story collections (most recently Wild Nights!), presents another good choice for libraries.
—Josh Cohen

Kirkus Reviews
The latest of Oates' numerous collections offers 14 tales variously concerned with family relationships and crises. Nine characteristic stories open the volume on a strong note. A married couple driving on the freeway discovers the fragility of their closeness in "Panic" when they are threatened by a school bus carrying teenagers who appear to be pointing a gun at them. "Landfill" poignantly shows a hardworking Latino family destroyed when their college-student son becomes the victim of a fraternity hazing. A young girl hideously scarred in a household "accident" seeks desperately for a way to survive and forgive her disturbed older sister in the breathlessly powerful "Special," one of Oates' best short works, which radiates the feeling of lived experience. In "The Blind Man's Sighted Daughters," reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence at his most intuitive, an embittered old man's guilt over a crime for which he escaped punishment becomes the means by which his adult daughters put him in the emotional place he belongs and, just possibly, save themselves. Other stories focused repetitively on filial and fraternal attraction-repulsion (e.g., "Cutty Sark," "Vigilante") are less compelling, and the five concluding tales, primarily satirical, feel too familiar. "Dear Joyce Carol" shows a prominent author being harassed in letters by a deranged admirer who proclaims herself Joyce Carol's rival and equal; it's a concept Oates has used a few too many times. "Mistrial" tells the old, old story about a lonely juror attracted to a charmingly sinister defendant. "Dear Husband" is yet another companion to Oates' novels Blonde and My Sister, My Love, channeling the story of child-murdering mother Andrea Yatesinto a fulsome autobiographical letter written from prison. Still, the onrushing prose and stabbing emotional intensity that are Oates' greatest strengths imbue the volume with compulsive readability. One of this indefatigable author's best books in some time.
Boston Herald
“Admirers of Oates’ literary fiction will find this collection a transcendent read. “Dear Husband” is likely to win Oates new fans as well. Oates’ characters are masterfully rendered, but she is particularly gifted at creating a certain type: The appallingly egocentric, sometimes to the point of unwitting hostility.”
New York Times Book Review
“Oates’s stories have a certain doomed poignancy . . . if there’s a moral here, it’s the anything-can-happen wisdom of what Oates calls ‘brutal and horrific’ fairy tales.”
Philadelphia City Paper
“Oates explores incest, death by fitness center, accidental death; it’s not light reading, but twined into these human tragedies are bits and pieces found in all our lives.”
Washington Post
“Savage, poetic and ruthless...[Oates’s] touch has never been surer, her insights never more piercing....several of the [stories], astonishingly, are among the best things she’s ever done...we are witnessing the steady unfolding of one of the towering careers in American letters.”
Boston Globe
“America simmers in the writings of Joyce Carol Oates, going through the motions of everyday life as best it can, but prone to boiling over at any moment. Oates... has once again held a haunting mirror up to America, revealing who we are.”
Associated Press Staff
“Although nearly all 14 stories have been published elsewhere, they merit a book of their own. Admirers of Oates’ literary fiction will find this collection a transcendent read. Dear Husband is likely to win Oates new fans as well. Oates’ characters are masterfully rendered.”

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Read an Excerpt

Dear Husband,

Chapter One


He knows this fact: it was a school bus.

That unmistakable color of virulent high-concentrate urine.

A lumbering school bus emitting exhaust. Faulty muffler, should be ticketed. He'd gotten trapped behind the bus in the right lane of the Chrysler Freeway headed north at about the exit for I-94, trapped at forty-five God-damned miles an hour. In disgust he shut vent on his dashboard. What a smell! Would've turned on the A/C except he glimpsed then in the smudged rear window of the school bus, a section of which had been cranked partway open, two heifer-sized boys (Hispanic? black?) wrestling together and grinning. One of them had a gun the other was trying to snatch from him.

"My God! He's got a..."

Charles spoke distractedly, in shock. He'd been preparing to shift into the left lane and pass the damned bus but traffic in that lane of the Freeway (now nearing the Hamtramck exit) was unrelenting, he'd come up dangerously close behind the bus. Beside him Camilla glanced up sharply to see two boys struggling against the rear window, the long-barreled object that was a gun or appeared to be a gun, without uttering a word nor even a sound of alarm, distress, warning, Camilla fumbled to unbuckle her safety belt, turned to climb over the back of the seat where she fell awkwardly, scrambled then to her knees to unbuckle the baby from the baby's safety seat, and crouched on the floor behind Charles. So swiftly!

In a hoarse voice crying: "Brake the car! Get away!"

Charles was left in the front seat, alone. Exposed.

Stunned at how quickly, how unerringly and without a moment'shesitation, his wife had reacted to the situation. She'd escaped into the backseat like a panicked cat. And lithe as a cat. While he continued to drive, too stunned even to release pressure on the gas pedal, staring at the boys in the bus window less than fifteen feet ahead.

Now the boys were watching him, too. They'd seen Camilla climb over the back of her seat, very possibly they'd caught a flash of white thigh, a silky undergarment, and were howling with hilarity. Grinning and pointing at Charles behind the wheel frozen-faced in fear and indecision, delighted as if they were being tickled in their most private parts. Another hulking boy joined them thrusting his heifer-face close against the window. The boy waving the gun, any age from twelve to seventeen, fatty torso in a black T-shirt, oily black tight-curly hair and a skin like something smudged with a dirty eraser, was crouching now to point the gun barrel through the cranked-open window, at an angle that allowed him to aim straight at Charles's heart.

Laugh, laugh! There were a half-dozen boys now crowded against the bus window, observing with glee the cringing Caucasian male, of no age in their eyes except old, hunched behind the wheel of his metallic-gray Acura in the futile hope of minimizing the target he made, pleading, as if the boys could hear or, hearing, be moved to have pity on him, "No, don't!, no, God no..."

Charles braked the car, desperately. Swerved onto the highway shoulder. This was a dangerous maneuver executed without premeditation, no signal to the driver close behind the Acura in a massive S.U.V. but he had no choice! Horns were sounding on all sides, furious as wounded rhinos. The Acura lurched and bumped along the littered shoulder, skidded, began to fishtail. Both Camilla and Susanna were screaming. Charles saw a twisted strip of chrome rushing toward them, tire remnants and broken glass, but his brakes held, he struck the chrome at about ten miles an hour, and came to an abrupt stop.

Directly behind Charles, the baby was shrieking. Camilla was trying to comfort her, "Honey, it's all right! We are all right, honey! We're safe now! Nothing is going to happen! Nothing is going to happen to you, honey. Mommy is right here."

The school bus had veered on ahead, emitting its jeering exhaust.

Too fast. It happened too fast.

Didn't have time to think. Those punk bastards?.?.?.

Had he seen the license plate at the rear of the school bus, he had not. Hadn't even registered the name of the school district or the bus company in black letters coated in grime at the rear of the bus. Hamtramck? Highland Park? As soon as he'd seen the gun in the boy's hand he'd been walloped by adrenaline like a shot to the heart: rushing blood to his head, tears into his eyes, racing his heart like a hammering fist.

He was shaken, ashamed. Humiliated.

It was the animal panic of not wanting to be shot, not wanting to die, that had taken over him utterly. The demonically grinning boys, the long-barreled object, obviously a gun, had to be a gun, the boy crouching so that he could aim through the cranked-open section of the window straight at Charles. The rapture in the thuggish kid's face as he prepared to pull the trigger.

Camilla was leaning over him, concerned. "Charles, are you all right?"

He was cursing the boys on the bus. He was sweating now, and his heart continued to beat erratically, as if mockingly. He told Camilla yes, of course he was all right. He was fine. He was alive, wasn't he? No shots had been fired, he hadn't crashed the car. She and Susanna were unhurt.

He would climb out of the overheated car as, scarcely more than a foot away, traffic rushed by on the highway, and he would struggle with the God-damned strip of chrome that had jammed beneath the Acura's front bumper, and then with mangled hands gripping the steering wheel tight as death he would continue to drive his family the rest of the way home without incident.

Dear Husband,. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. 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.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
June 16, 1938
Place of Birth:
Lockport, New York
B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

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Dear Husband, 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Jimmy_D More than 1 year ago
This was my first time reading JCO, a writer whom I had mistakenly thought wrote trash stuff for women. Then I read a review of this book in the NYTimes by a scholar who wrote beautifully. I thought that maybe JCO was worth a read. I took the book with me on a short trip to Ireland. Each day I read a story. Each story required me to talk about it and once or twice to have restless nights' sleep! So, I don't review the book as a light read but a worthwhile one... now I'll see if my daughter will let me read some of her JCO stuff!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
jz More than 1 year ago
enjoyed it completely
Anonymous More than 1 year ago