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The Falls

The Falls

3.4 64
by Joyce Carol Oates, Anna Fields (Read by)

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It is 1950 and, after a disastrous honeymoon night, Ariah Erskine's young husband throws himself into the roaring waters of Niagara Falls. Ariah, "the Widow Bride of the Falls," begins a relentless seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for his body to be found. At her side is confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby, who is unexpectedly drawn to


It is 1950 and, after a disastrous honeymoon night, Ariah Erskine's young husband throws himself into the roaring waters of Niagara Falls. Ariah, "the Widow Bride of the Falls," begins a relentless seven-day vigil in the mist, waiting for his body to be found. At her side is confirmed bachelor and pillar of the community Dirk Burnaby, who is unexpectedly drawn to this plain, strange woman. What follows is a passionate love affair, marriage, and family—a seemingly perfect existence. But the tragedy by which they were thrown together begins to shadow them, damaging their idyll with distrust, greed, and even murder.

Set against the mythic-historic backdrop of Niagara Falls in the mid-twentieth century, this haunting exploration of the American family in crisis is a stunning achievement from "one of the great artistic forces of our time" (The Nation).

Editorial Reviews

Jane Ciabattari
In her hypnotic new novel, The Falls, Oates juxtaposes a majestic and dangerous natural phenomenon -- the Falls at Niagara -- with a man-made monstrosity, the deadly witches' brew of nuclear and toxic waste known as Love Canal -- as the threatening elements underlying a family saga of self-destruction and redemption.
The Washington Post
Terrence Rafferty
At her best, as in the middle section of The Falls, she's like a contemporary Dreiser, both in her slovenliness and in her power. After 40 years and millions of words, Joyce Carol Oates remains implacable, unstoppable, and if she isn't truly a force of nature that's only because, as in any long relationship between a writer and her audience, there's not much mystery left.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Oates is not only on her authentically rendered home ground in this sprawling novel set in the city of Niagara Falls during the 1950s, she is also writing at the top of her form. Her febrile prose is especially appropriate to a story as turbulent as the tumultuous waters that have claimed many lives over the years. Widowed on her wedding night when her new husband, a young minister and latent homosexual, throws himself into the falls, Ariah Littrell, the plain, awkward daughter of a minister, henceforth considers herself damned. Her bleak future becomes miraculously bright when Dirk Burnaby, a handsome, wealthy bon vivant with an altruistic heart, falls in love with the media-dubbed Widow-Bride. Their rapturous happiness is shadowed only by Ariah's illogical conviction over the years that Dirk will leave her and their three children someday. Her unreasonable fear becomes self-fulfilling when her increasingly unstable behavior, combined with Dirk's obsessed but chaste involvement with Nina Olshaker, a young mother who enlists his help in alerting the city fathers to the pestilential conditions in the area later to be known as Love Canal, opens a chasm in their marriage. His gentle heart inspired by a need for justice, Dirk takes on the powerful, corrupt politicians, his former peers and pals, in a disastrous lawsuit that ruins him socially and financially and results in his death. Oates adroitly addresses the material of this "first" class action lawsuit and makes the story fresh and immediate. "In the end, all drama is about family," a character muses, and while the narrative occasionally lapses into melodrama in elucidating this theme, Oates spins a haunting story in which nature and humans are equally rapacious and self-destructive. Agent, Jane Hawkins. Author tour. (Sept. 16) Forecast: This is likely to be one of Oates's biggest sellers-its heft, striking setting and sheer excellence should make it her highest-profile novel since Blonde. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of more than 30 books, Oates returns to her We Were the Mulvaneys theme of a family torn apart by external events. When Ariah's new husband, Erskine, throws himself into Niagara Falls on the first day of their honeymoon, she endures a seven-day vigil as she awaits the recovery of his body and soon becomes known as the Widow Bride of the Falls. Enter Dirk Burnaby, a local playboy lawyer, who falls in love with Ariah and marries her a month later. Their life goes well, with the birth of two sons and a daughter, but when Dirk takes on what would later be known as the Love Canal lawsuit, his long hours, the rumor of an affair, and the animosity of the community lead to estrangement from his family and then his death. Sixteen years later, we meet Ariah's children, who know nothing of Ariah's past as the Widow Bride; they have known only that the community has ridiculed them inexplicably. Through the discovery of their complicated history, all three children find direction. Oates uses the falls metaphor to powerful effect, dramatizing how our lives can get swept up by forces beyond our control. Highly recommended.-Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oates (I Am No One You Know, 2003, etc.) painstakingly examines the impulse toward self-destruction-and the ways we find to heal ourselves. The story spans nearly 30 years, beginning in 1950 when newlywed Gilbert Erskine leaps into Niagara Falls to his death, forever traumatizing his bride Ariah, a "spinster" music teacher who had awkwardly stumbled into a marriage neither spouse wanted. The hallucinatory opening section traces Ariah's growing embitterment while introducing young attorney Dirk Burnaby, who impulsively comforts "the Widow-Bride of The Falls," just as impulsively proposes a year after Gilbert's demise-and is accepted. The Burnabys settle in Niagara Falls, produce three children, and keep their often volatile marriage together (despite Ariah's emotional instability and paranoia) until Dirk, moved by the passionate activism of a woman whose family is victimized by environmental poisoning, undertakes the first (1962) lawsuit against the chemical company that had dumped pollutants into Love Canal. The suit is dismissed, Dirk's high standing in the community is destroyed, and his suspicious death pushes Ariah deeper into withdrawal and resentment. The narrative then focuses in turns on her children. Scholarly, introverted Chandler, who has long known he is his mother's firstborn but not her favorite, becomes a science teacher, and eventually the dogged pursuer of the buried facts about his father's obsession and fate. "Golden Boy" Royall struggles to escape the burdens of being loved too easily and achieving too little. And their sister Juliet, who inherits Ariah's musical gifts, must resist a deathward momentum given stunning metaphoric form in the Burnaby family story of adaredevil tightrope walker, and the beckoning "voices" that seem to speak from within the roaring waters of the Falls. This big, enthralling novel recaptures the gift for Dreiserian realism that distinguishes such Oates triumphs as them, What I Lived For, and We Were the Mulvaneys. It's her best ever-and a masterpiece. Author tour
New York Times Book Review
“Ambitious...Joyce Carol Oates remains implacable, unstoppable.”

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt

The Falls
A Novel

The Bride

"No. Please, God. Not this."

The hurt. The humiliation. The unspeakable shame. Not grief, not yet. The shock was too immediate for grief. When she discovered the enigmatic note her husband had left for her propped against a mirror in the bedroom of their honeymoon suite at the Rainbow Grand Hotel, Niagara Falls, New York, Ariah had been married twenty-one hours. When, in the early afternoon of that day, she learned from Niagara Falls police that a man resembling her husband, Gilbert Erskine, had thrown himself into the Horseshoe Falls early that morning and had been swept away -- "vanished, so far without a trace" -- beyond the Devil's Hole Rapids, as the scenic attraction downriver from The Falls was named, she'd been married not quite twenty-eight hours.

These were the stark, cruel facts.

"I'm a bride who has become a widow in less than a day."

Ariah spoke aloud, in a voice of wonder. She was the daughter of a much-revered Presbyterian minister, surely that should have counted for something with God, as it did with secular authorities?

Ariah struck suddenly at her face with both fists. She wanted to pummel, blacken her eyes that had seen too much.

"God, help me! You wouldn't be so cruel -- would you?"

Yes. I would. Foolish woman of course I would. Who are you, to be spared My justice?

How swift the reply came! A taunt that echoed so distinctly in Ariah's skull, she halfway believed these pitying strangers could hear it.

But here was solace: until Gilbert Erskine's body was found in the river and identified, his death was theoretical and not official. Ariah wasn't yet a widow, but still a bride.

... Waking that morning to the rude and incontrovertible fact that she who'd slept alone all her life was yet alone again on the morning following her wedding day. Waking alone though she was no longer Miss Ariah Juliet Littrell but Mrs. Gilbert Erskine. Though no longer the spinster daughter of Reverend and Mrs. Thaddeus Littrell of Troy, New York, piano and voice instructor at the Troy Academy of Music, but the bride of Reverend Gilbert Erskine, recently named minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Palymra, New York.

Waking alone and in that instant she knew. Yet she could not believe, her pride was too great. Not allowing herself to think I am alone. Am I?

A clamor of wedding bells had followed her here. Hundreds of miles. Her head was ringed in pain as if in a vise. Her bowels were sick as if the very intestines were corroded and rotting. In this unfamiliar bed smelling of damp linen, damp flesh and desperation. Where, where was she, what was the name of the hotel he'd brought her to, a paradise for honeymooners, and Niagara Falls was the Honeymoon Capital of the World, a pulse in her head beat so violently she couldn't think. Having been married so briefly she knew little of husbands yet it seemed to her plausible (Ariah was telling herself this as a frightened child might tell herself a story to ward off harm) that Gilbert had only just slipped quietly from the bed and was in the bathroom. She lay very still listening for sounds of faucets, a bath running, a toilet flushing, hoping to hear even as her sensitive nerves resisted hearing. The awkwardness, embarrassment, shame of such intimacy was new to her, like the intimacy of marriage. The "marital bed." Nowhere to hide. His pungent Vitalis hair-oil, and her coyly sweet Lily of the Valley cologne in collision. Just Ariah and Gilbert whom no one called Gil alone together breathless and smiling hard and determined to be cheerful, pleasant, polite with each other as they'd always been before the wedding had joined them in holy matrimony except Ariah had to know something was wrong, she'd been jolted from her hot stuporous sleep to this knowledge.

Gone. He's gone. Can't be gone. Where?

God damn! She was a new, shy bride. So the world perceived her and the world was not mistaken. At the hotel registration desk she'd signed, for the first time, Mrs. Ariah Erskine, and her cheeks had flamed. A virgin, twenty-nine years old. Inexperienced with men as with another species of being. As she lay wracked with pain she didn't dare even to reach out in the enormous bed for fear of touching him.

She wouldn't have wanted him to misinterpret her touch.

Almost, she had to recall his name. "Gilbert." No one called him "Gil." None of the Erskine relatives she'd met. Possibly friends of his at the seminary in Albany had called him "Gil" but that was a side of him Ariah hadn't yet seen, and couldn't presume to know. It was like discussing religious faith with him: he'd been ordained a Presbyterian minister at a very young age and so faith was his professional domain and not hers. To call such a man by the folksy diminutive "Gil" would be too familiar a gesture for Ariah, his fiancée who'd only just become his wife.

In his stiff shy way he'd called her "Ariah, dear." She called him "Gilbert" but had been planning how in a tender moment, as in a romantic Hollywood film, she would begin to call him "darling" -- maybe even "Gil, darling."

Unless all that was changed. That possibility.

She'd had a glass of champagne at the wedding reception, and another glass -- or two -- of champagne in the hotel room the night before, nothing more and yet she'd never felt so drugged, so ravaged. Her eyelashes were stuck together as if with glue, her mouth tasted of acid. She couldn't bear the thought: she'd been sleeping like this, comatose, mouth open and gaping like a fish's.

Had she been snoring? Had Gilbert heard?

She tried to hear him in the bathroom. Antiquated plumbing shrieked and rumbled, but not close by ...

The Falls
A Novel
. 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, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. Her most recent novel is A Book of American Martyrs. 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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Falls 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
THE FALLS is the kind of breathless, unrelenting novel we can only read once or twice a year considering the energy it saps from you. But it¿s a good draining, for the book is like a marathon, and the breathlessness we feel at the end is not strained but earned from what we are willing to give it, and what it gives to us. Its forceful and fully realized characters allow the plot to pulse along at breakneck speed, and we are rewarded by the enthralling story Oates has spun from her seemingly bottomless imagination. While it may not be the most astounding of Oates¿s numerous dazzling achievements (for me, that novel is WHAT I LIVED FOR), THE FALLS is nonetheless a testament to the idea of fictions as entertainments, and of a novel¿s ability to speak from its own subconscious but compelling narrative voice. Oates¿s evocation of time and place in and around the Niagara Falls area of New York is, as usual, on display to full effect, and the powerful female protagonist (Arriah) becomes¿by novel¿s end¿one of Oates¿s most memorable. If you know anything of Oates¿s corpus, this is a not a small thing. Highly recommended, and highly entertaining.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I finished reading The Falls a few days ago and all I can say is 'WOW'. What a wonderful book! I just could not put this book down. The characters come to life and you feel like you know them and you begin to care about each and every one. I love the way JCO describes scenery and places, you feel like you are right there. I did not want this book to end. Even though I finished the book a few days ago I am still thinking about all the colorful characters, they all came to life for me. Joyce Carol Oates is an extremely gifted writer. This is the first book I have read by her and I can't wait to read more of her books. She writes so beautifully, her words just flow and you can't get enough. I love the fact that she incorporates history with fiction. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Please BUY IT! You won't be sorry.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I completely disagree with the other person who posted a negative review on this book. That person had negative complaints that were more about punctuation and sentence formation which frankly, made him sound as though he were a school teacher grading the book rather than a reader relaxing and taking in the story for entertainment value. My take on the book was very different and I was completely entranced and at times touched by every long, run on sentence that the other reviewer complained about. The writer's form did not bother me at all and I rather enjoyed it. To me, it felt more like a person would really talk to you or the way your feelings and thoughts flow in real life; like floating and I think that is the feeling she was trying to create. I think it was mistaken for bad grammar when it was really just her sense of style. That's my take on it. She has always had this sort of gothic style where she tries to create a sense of timelessness and a 'being of its own world' kind of style. A sort of suspension that captures the reader into believing that, the only world that matters at that very moment is the one they create in their own imagination while they read the story. The book is their guide, however, some people are not going to understand her world or care for it if they do. So be it, put it down and don't finish it. But, I don't think it is fair to come on here and complain about this book (which I personally think was excellent and one of her best books) and critique it almost completely, based solely on it's lack of proper sentence formation and base your entire review on that when there were so many things to love about the writing here. That, is a total injustice. It's not fair to the book to say it could have been great but isn't because the editor didn't do a good job. This book IS great! It IS worth buying and reading! So go buy it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the first JCO's book I've read. I am hooked. I was incredibly sad when it ended. I haven't read a book that I kept thinking about for a long time. I have yet to start another because I am still savoring this one. Read this book and get ready to wonder about your own family dynamics!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could never find the point of the story. Characters came and went without resolve. Other times major plots were hinted at and then nothing ever became of them (ie Who was Chandler's biological father?) Sometimes the story telling became a first person narrative yet who was speaking was never clearly defined. I was left feeling confused and disappointed. There could have been much more to this story.
nancymitchell More than 1 year ago
GOOD READ! Flawed characters make this one and surprises and twists keep the reader's eyes glued to the pages; not an ooey gooey nauseating sweet tale, but a more true to life story with very human dilemmas. Interesting!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a beautiful writing style. One where you savor the choice of words. The pictures painted are exquisite in their exacting detail.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Oh, the Places You¿ll Go!¿ This title of a popular Dr. Seuss book is a great description of The Falls, a wonderful new book by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is the definitive writer of tumultuous family relationships and the schism/crater/gulf between parent and child. The story begins in 1950 with a trip to Niagara Falls¿a popular honeymoon spot¿by a newly appointed minister and the spinster daughter of a distinguished reverend who have just been married. The daughter¿s parents are relieved with this match, but the young minister is not. He leaves his new marital bed and leaps off Horseshoe Falls. Thus begins the story of Ariah, the ¿Widow of the Falls¿ as she is named in the media flurry that follows the suicide of her husband. Despite this tragic beginning, the book is not gray and depressing. Ariah ¿awakens¿ after her husband¿s death and really begins her life with another marriage that produces three children. Ariah welcomes the children, but raising them causes her a great deal of difficulty. One of the many ¿places you¿ll go¿ in this story is the Love Canal, the site of a historically real and tragic scandal involving the U.S. Government, and this scandal captures the novel. At the Love Canal, toxic waste was improperly dumped, causing the deaths of many innocent people. Ariah¿s second husband, a lawyer, represents the victims at the Love Canal and sues the government and the companies involved, jeopardizing his influential position in the town. One of his colleagues shakes his head and warns him, ¿Never underestimate the moral rot of your adversary.¿ Ariah has trouble embracing the cause and is unable to withstand the rejection and adversity caused by the lawsuit. Ariah¿s three offspring are denied the story of her first husband, even though the town remembers the ¿Widow of the Falls.¿ The children are also denied any information about their own father because Ariah refuses to talk about him after his Love Canal escapade and separation from the family. The children make their own discoveries. To my surprise, the children become the protagonists and heroes of the story, overcoming many trials and tribulations in this generous tome. This novel hooked me very early. Many times I attempted to slow down the page-turning to delay the end of my relationships with these characters. But, alas, I devoured it way too fast. I hope to have more discipline and good sense when I read the book again, which I certainly will do. Oh the places I will go!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The only reason I finished reading it was because I had already paid for it and I didn't want to waste my money.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Listened to Anna Fields' audio version of 'The Falls.' Loved it! I read the critique by the reviewer who raved on and on about the long sentences, word usage, etc. All I can say is the reviewer 'just doesn't get it.' The book was written that way for a purpose --- to create a mood --- 'The Falls' --- get it? That lives can be swept away by forces --- the writing conveys a perfect haunting, drowning mood --- which is exactly what a book about 'The Falls' should do.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The jacket of the novel proclaims, 'A stunning achievement from Joyce Carol Oates, 'One of the great artistic forces of our time.' (The Nation) 'It alone places Joyce Carol Oates definitively in the company of the Great American novelists.' The generally acerbic Kirkus Reviews wrote a flattering review also: 'It's her best ever and a masterpiece.' So I picked up the bulky book with great expectation of experiencing the joy of reading a good book. Alas, I was quite startled by the sloppy sentences written with very little care for either grammar or style. She says about Dirk Burnaby. 'He, Dirk Burnaby, whom women adored, and some of them happily married rich women, ignored by this woman!' 'The tall gaunt house in Palmyra, New York, mud-colored brick and rotted shingleboards in the roof and a congregation of less than two hundred people, most of them middle-aged and older, to whom the young minister must 'prove' himself.' Did the author mean fewer than two hundred people, not less than two hundred people? About Douglas she writes: 'He was proud husband and father of two-year-old girl twins.' Did she mean twin girls, not girl twins? Joyce uses nouns as adjectives, and adjectives as if they were adverbs. Her sentences grated upon my ears, and I wondered - how could a winner of the National Book Award (for 'Them', 1970) write such sloppy English? The novel is littered with sentences that run almost for ever, leaving readers jaded. I had to stop frequently to follow the author's chain of thoughts. Oh, what is the author trying to say? And often I had the distinct impression that she was trying to enter the Guiness Book of Records for writing the longest sentence in print:' His back bone was snapped, and snapped, and snapped like the dried wishbone of a turkey clutched at by giggling children and his body was flung lifeless as a rag doll at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, lifted and dropped and lifted again amid the rocks and sucked down amid churning water and winking miniature rain drops, lost now to the appalled sight of the sole witness at the railing at Terrapin Point - though shortly it would be regurgitated from the foot of The Falls and swept downriver three-quarters of a mile past the Whilrpool Rapids and into the Devil's Whirlpool where it would be sucked down from sight and trapped in the spiraling water - the broken body would spin like a deranged moon in orbit until, in His mercy, or His whimsy, God would grant the miracle of putrifaction to inflate the body with gases, floating it to the surface of the foaming gyre, and release.' Wow! I found myself longing for the precise and elegant prose of V. S. Naipaul, Joseph Conrad, Yann Martel or Jane Austen. This could have been a wonderful book if only the editor had wielded her/his pencil diligently. Too bad. I found the story quite gripping, though. But the writing is flawed, like a face with beautiful, even angelic, features but marred by acne and pocks.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've enjoyed books by Ms. Oates in the past, and looked forward to reading the Falls. The story had promise, but most of the content of the book was beyond tedious. The primary character was self absorbed and impossible to care for. So many words to describe so little action. I slogged through to the end hoping for some closure. Nope. None, none at all. Just lots of words, and no real finish. Avoid this book, there's too many better books out there.
vixa More than 1 year ago
The story was a good one, but very graphic with death details. At first, I liked the female character, but 1/2 way through the book, I didn't like her very much at all. Also, it was hard to like her husband and her children. The "falls" was a good lesson in history, but I have to like my characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you have read Joyce Carol Oates before you know what to expect. She writes beautifully. Her characters are extremely well developed. And the story is generally depressing, as is this multigenerational one of a family that lives their lives in thr shadow of Niagara Falls.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Joyce Carol Oates is my favorite author. She writes with depth and elegant prose. This is not a beach read. You have to commit.
bookendco More than 1 year ago
The flow of the book was a little different. You were introduced to the nuances of a characters one by one. It was an interesting story but I didn't love it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found the story compelling and the writing beautiful, poetic. However, can I be the only reader who found herself completely derailed by the gratuitous graveyard tryst in the middle of the novel? As an avid reader of many genres, I am willing and eager to suspend my disbelief when the story or genre calls for it. This event struck out of nowhere and with no conceivable purpose or justification. The behaviors of the characters in this scene were completely unbelievable. Clearly some catalyst was needed for the events that immediately followed, but given the skill of the writer, surely a plausible event could have been devised! I had a difficult time sinking myself back into the story after having been so blindsided and betrayed by such a bizarre turn.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The writing is beautiful. Interesting story line, well developed characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the story entertaining but must admit parts were dull and I skipped over them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Get on with lt alteady.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I only finished this horrible book because I bought it. Very disjointed, too many POVs, never sure who's thinking/talking, or what time frame it is as it jumps around in each sentence. I hated Ariaha, and the book took weird turns into pediophelia randomly. It only got bearable the last 1\3 of the book when it was from the kids POVs. Then it just ended with no point or reconciliations of any kind. Never reading this author again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this excellent book one year ago, and I still remember details. I am dismayed with the overall 3 stars average----it is much better than that! I have at least 600 books in my library, an this is in my top ten favorites. I highly recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Never bother with a five review and seldom the editorial as the latter wants sales long fives will give the plot away so scan the five to eight page and save reading the quotes on one long one star review are unbelievable bad writibg m.a. @sparta