Picks and Pans Review: Bellefleur

UPDATED 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/08/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates has written a dozen novels (including Them, which may be the closest approximation to the Great American Novel), 11 books of short stories and eight more of criticism and poetry. So it is safe to assume she thought she knew what she was doing when she set out to write this incredible, 558-page, multigeneration saga about the Bellefleur family, who live in what seems to be upstate New York. The characters are bigger, stronger, smarter, richer and more beautiful than mere mortals. Greater, too, are their horses, sex lives, children, love affairs, ugly moods, artifacts and even their family cat. After what must be the longest, most agonizingly described pregnancy in literature, the heroine gives birth to a—what is it? Attendants at the birth faint at the sight. It is some kind of monster, but the grandmother takes a knife, lops off the extra parts, and the beauty of the next generation of Bellefleurs is preserved. Or is it? Following that, we witness a religious conversion, a family hermit, gruesome mass murders and revenge on a grand scale. The writing is just as overwhelming as the characters and plot—never just one word if Oates can think of a dozen. It is, finally, just impossible not to laugh at all this overwrought Gothic nonsense, for Oates has gone too far. It's as if she were determined in one book to out-Brontë Anne, Emily and Charlotte together. (Dutton, $12.95)

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