A Garden of Earthly Delights, the first book of Oates’ Wonderland Quartet, tells the story of Clara Walpole, the daughter of migrant farmworkers. She is blonde and beautiful, and uses her looks and tenacity to escape her parents’ life and make one of her own. Clara values what she considers her independent spirit, but is almost completely defined by the men in her life. The book is divided into three parts, “Carleton” (her father), “Lowry” (a lover) and “Swan” (her son). These subtitles suggest that Clara is a secondary character, though the story revolves around her. She would not be able to leave her family in Florida, move to New York or achieve any sort of financial security without male help.
Though it is frustrating to see Clara continually waiting for a man (for the majority of the book, either Lowry or Revere, who she ends up marrying), her powerlessness seems characteristic of the time the book is set in – though a year is not specifically stated, it seems that the story spans the 1930s-1950s, if not later as well. (What seems to be World War II is mentioned fleetingly). And at the time, women had very little of their own.
What limited power Clara exercises is a result of her beauty. She is able to get Lowry interested in her, and to get Revere to take care of her financially, because of her looks and her ability to make both men feel like they needed to save her – which, in a way, they do. Her relationships are based off of a mutual dependency: Clara uses Lowry, Revere and Swan (in a way) to further her ambitions; Lowry and Revere use Clara for her beauty and willingness to please them.
The story is emotionally raw and explores the extremity of feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. Oates’ prose is deceptively simple: she evokes images both beautiful and terrible with just a few words. I have read two other books of hers, Foxfire, Confessions of a Girl Gang, and Wild Nights! and am enthralled with the way she combines beauty and violence, humor and sadness. Though I’ve only read three of Oates’ novels so far, I am planning on reading many more. Both because Oates is an excellent story teller, and because, as a writer, I consider it necessary to my education to study Oates’ prose and narrative style. Highly recommended.