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Missing Mom

Missing Mom

4.1 22
by Joyce Carol Oates

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Stacey D'Erasmo
With Missing Mom, Oates turns her considerable force on the conundrum of the absence of an ordinary woman, Gwen Eaton, a 56-year-old housewife in Mount Ephraim, N.Y.…and how that absence ripples through the lives around her…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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Nicole, 31, is living an extended adolescence, still in rebellion against her parents' suburban middle-class, do-the-right-thing lifestyle. Her father has recently died; her older, domestic diva sister is prone to histrionics. Nicole herself is involved with a married man and does not have a clue how her actions may impact other people. Everything changes in an instant when Nicole's mother, Gwen, dies in a violent assault. After the ensuing investigations and memorials, everyone is surprised when Nicole steps into her mother's shoes and gradually begins to adopt aspects of Gwen's personality. Within this transformative process, hidden details of Gwen's life come to light; we learn that this cheerful, perhaps overzealous woman who was called "Feather" in high school had some ghosts of her own. 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. It may not make a big splash, but loyal fans will want it. Recommended for larger popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.]-Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati and Hamilton Cty., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oates's latest, which examines the aftershocks of a suburban murder, is an uneasy cross between her literary fiction and her pseudonymous "Rosamond Smith" mystery thrillers. It begins on Mother's Day, when narrator Nikki Eaton attends a party for her widowed mother, Gwen, and, as usual, blends in awkwardly, offending the sensibilities of her married older sister Clare, as well as her mother's assorted friends (who are, effectively, beneficiaries of Gwen's unquenchable good will). Things spin quickly out of control when Gwen is robbed and murdered by wretched "meth-head" ex-convict Ward Lynch, and the quiet neighborhood (in upstate Mt. Ephraim, NY) where she had lived for 30 years tries to cope with the ensuing emotional fallout. Sticking strictly to Nikki's viewpoint, Oates portrays her narrator as a free-spirited (possibly just borderline-trashy?) babe who works as a feature-writer for a regional weekly newspaper, sustains a ragged affair with married developer and radio deejay Wally Szalla (who may or may not divorce his wife), and grieves awkwardly for her mother, while waiting to learn whether Lynch will plead guilty or stand trial, and deflecting the hesitant attentions of a police detective whose interest in her seems less than professional. The novel consists of bulky setpieces in which Nikki discusses her Gwen with the cartoonishly intemperate Clare, people who remember Gwen's vibrant youth and probably loveless marriage to a cold-fish husband, and, finally, the former boyfriend who abandoned Gwen to enter the priesthood. Add in flashbacks to Nikki's childhood and early adulthood, and the novel becomes irrationally bloated; on virtually every page, we sense Oates's desperation toextend this banal premise, overwriting, incessantly over-detailing. The only halfway credible character is Gwen's surly tomcat Smoky-probably because we aren't made privy to his thoughts. After last year's triumph The Falls, Oates gives us this? Get this woman an editor.
New York Times Book Review

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Read an Excerpt

Missing Mom

A Novel
By Joyce Oates

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Joyce Oates
All right reserved.

ISBN: 006081621X

Chapter One

mother's day

May 9, 2004. One of those aloof-seeming spring days: very sunny but not very warm.

Gusts of wind rushing down from Lake Ontario in mean little skirmishes like hit-and-run. A sky hard-looking as blue tile. That wet-grassy smell lifting from the neat rectangular front lawns on Deer Creek Drive.

In patches lilac bushes were blooming up and down the street. Vivid glowing-purple, lavender like swipes of paint.

At 43 Deer Creek, my parents' house, where Mom lived alone now that Dad had died, there were too many vehicles parked in the driveway and at the curb. My brother-in-law's Land Rover, my Aunt Tabitha's old black hearse-sized Caddie, these made sense, but there were others including a low-slung lipstick-red sports car shaped like a missile.

Who did Mom know, who'd drive such a car?

Damned if I wanted to meet him. (Had to be a him.)

My mother was always introducing me to "eligible bachelors." Since I was involved with an ineligible man.

It was like Mom to invite people outside the family for Mother's Day. It was like Mom to invite people who were practically strangers into her house.

I parked the car across the street. I'd begun to whistle. It seemed to tamp down my adrenaline, whistling when I was in danger of becoming over-excited. My father had whistled a lot around the house.

Mother's Day: I was bringing Mom a present so soft, so gossamer-light it seemed to have no weight but lay across my outstretched arms like something sleeping. I'd spent a frustrating half-hour wrapping it in rainbow tin foil, crisscrossing the foil with multi-colored yarns instead of ribbon; I had a vision of the sort of wild/funny/funky look I wanted for the gift, and had to settle for this cross between New Age and Kindergarten. I'd taken a half-day off from work to find an appropriate gift for my mother who presented a riddle to her grown daughters, for she seemed in need of nothing.

Anyway, nothing we could give her.

We'd wanted to take Mom out, of course. My sister Clare and me. Why not, for once, a Mother's Day meal in elegant surroundings, the Mt. Ephraim Inn for instance. No need for Mom to prepare one of her complicated meals, work herself into a state of nerves inviting guests at the last minute like a train hooking on extra cars, careening and swerving along the tracks!

No need. Except of course Mom resisted. Maybe when Dad had been alive, if he'd insisted on taking her out she'd have consented, but now Dad was gone, there was just Clare and me hoping to persuade our mother to behave reasonably.

You know how I love to cook. This is the nicest Mother's Day present you girls can give me, my family visiting and letting me cook for them.

Then, vehemently as if protecting her innocent/ignorant daughters from being swindled Pay prices like that for food? When I can prepare a meal for us for a fraction of the cost, and better?

There were three ways into Mom's house: front door, side door, through the garage. Most days I used the side door, that opened directly into the kitchen.

The door to which Mom had affixed little bells that tinkled merrily, like a shopkeeper's door, when you pushed it open.

"Ohhh Nikki! What have you done with your hair!"

First thing Mom said to me. Before I was through the doorway and into the kitchen. Before she hugged me stepping back with this startled look in her face.

I would remember the way Mom's voice lifted on hair like the cry of a bird shot in mid-flight.

Mom had a round childlike face that showed every emotion clear as water. Her skin was flushed as if windburnt, her eyes were wide-open greeny-amber. Since Dad's death she'd become a darting little hummingbird of a woman. Her shock at my appearance was such, I'd have sworn what I heard her say was What have you done with my hair?

Innocently I said I thought I'd told her, I was having my hair cut?


Meaning, what an understatement!

I was thirty-one years old. Mom was fifty-six. We'd been having these exchanges for almost three decades. You'd have thought we were both accustomed to them by now, but we didn't seem to be. I could feel Mom's quickened heartbeat like my own.

This time, the situation was pretty tame. I hadn't run away from home as I'd done as a teenager, or, worse yet, returned home abruptly and unexpectedly from college refusing to explain why. I hadn't announced that I was engaged to a young man my parents scarcely knew, nor even that I'd broken off the engagement. (Twice. Two very different young men.) I hadn't quit my current job in a succession of boring jobs. Hadn't "gone off " with a not-quite-divorced man nor even by myself cross-country in a rattletrap Volkswagen van to backpack in the Grand Tetons, in Idaho. All I'd done was have my hair cut punk-spiky style and darkened to a shade of inky-maroon that, in certain lights, glared iridescent. No strand of hair longer than one inch, shaved at the sides and back of my head. You could say this was a chic-druggie look of another era or you could say that I looked like someone who'd stuck her finger into an electric socket.

Mom smiled bravely. It was Mother's Day after all, there were guests in the other room. Wasn't Gwen Eaton known in Mt. Ephraim, New York, in the Chautauqua Valley seventy miles south of Lake Ontario, as uncomplaining, unself-pitying, good-natured and good-hearted and indefatigably optimistic?

Hadn't her high school nickname been Feather?

"Well, Nikki! You'd be a beauty, no matter if you were bald."

Rising now on her tiptoes to give me a belated hug. Just a little harder than ordinary, to signal how she loved me even more, because I was a trial to her.


Excerpted from Missing Mom by Joyce Oates Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Oates.
Excerpted by permission.
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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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