I finally finished Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates a few weeks ago. I’ve been reading it on and off since August (between other books), but I buckled down and wrapped it up recently. Naturally, the next step was to talk about it here on my blog.
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Synopsis (from Amazon):
A wealthy and notorious clan, the Bellefleurs live in a region not unlike the Adirondacks, in an enormous mansion on the shores of mythic Lake Noir. They own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires, a mass murderer, a spiritual seeker who climbs into the mountains looking for God, a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch.
Bellefleur traces the lives of several generations of this unusual family. At its center is Gideon Bellefleur and his imperious, somewhat psychic, very beautiful wife, Leah, their three children (one with frightening psychic abilities), and the servants and relatives, living and dead, who inhabit the mansion and its environs. Their story offers a profound look at the world’s changeableness, time and eternity, space and soul, pride and physicality versus love. Bellefleur is an allegory of caritas versus cupiditas, love and selflessness versus pride and selfishness. It is a novel of change, baffling complexity, mystery.
About Joyce Carol Oates (from Amazon):
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 nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. 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.
I can’t really give Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates a rating. Even the idea of doing that seems absurd to me. (I mean, it’s Joyce Carol Oates). Instead, I will just say I enjoyed this work of literary fiction immensely.
And it is literary fiction. When pregnant with her youngest, Leah gets the idea to restore the Bellefleurs to their former glory, and consequently, we learn about the Bellefleurs who built the empire, the Bellefleurs who lost it, and the Bellefleurs who don’t want any part of it. Because the characters and their stories span many generations, it can be a challenge to keep up with how everyone relates (to each other and the story), but Oates has this effortless voice that puts the reader right there in the action. (I say effortless, but in her afterword, Oates mentioned that it took her several years and over one thousand pages of notes to find her voice in the story, so effortless is obviously a relative term.)
What surprised me was the paranormal element: disappearing and reappearing Bellefleurs, Bellefleurs who seem to melt into their environments or to shift form altogether, and Bellefleurs who just leave. I’m not sure I entirely grasped this element of the story, but it was incredibly interesting.
As stated earlier, I loved Oates’ voice throughout this work because it put me in the story. I sensed what the characters sensed. I also really enjoyed the theme of family identity and how it changes yet stays the same, as its something I explore frequently in my own work.
I highly recommend for fans of Joyce Carol Oates, literary fiction, and American Gothic.