Princeton, 1905. President (of the university, not yet the US) Woodrow Wilson works up to apoplexy in his Herculean struggle against the dean of the graduate school, an archenemy with an unholy goal – replacing Wilson as president. Meanwhile, unnatural events overwhelm the privileged inhabitants of the college town, especially members of the prominent Slade family. It begins with nightmares, voices, ghosts – Board president Grover Cleveland’s little daughter, dead this twelvemonth and more, beckons him out a window. A bride is abducted from the altar by a newcomer to town who appears as handsome lawyer, frog-faced horror, and everything in between, depending on who views him. A count from Wallachia, murders, children turned to stone, a plague of serpents – Princeton’s inhabitants are accursed. But why?
This book is at once thematically complex and salaciously thrilling, brilliantly literary and creepily Gothic. It’s also pervasively metaphorical. The depth of characterization is impressive, from the “real” people (the martinet Wilson, Upton Sinclair, et al.) to those of Oates’ imagination. And what an imagination it is. The atmosphere and imagery are perfectly terrifying; the suspense moves like molasses on an autumn day, oozing over a darkly erotic tale. The prose is masterful, and also funny, since the characters unknowingly provide humor at their own expense, and Oates mocks them through their own words. Using various perspectives as one would multiple brushes, she paints a vast canvas… but as the reader stands back to view it through the characters’ warped perceptions, what picture emerges? The large cast as well as the conceit (the book is presented as an academic “history” pieced together after the fact) may slow some readers, but I found it inventive and immersive. The book is also a biting satire of Edwardian WASP society, and as an academic myself, I couldn’t fail to appreciate that Oates (a professor at Princeton) re-creates the microcosm that is academia with unsurpassed skill: “Essentially, a claustrophobic little world of privilege and anxiety in which one was made to care too much about too little.” Without risking hyperbole, Oates has managed a masterwork here, and her literary talents are exceptional – unexpected in someone so prolific. Highly recommended.