Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars
“I never change, I simply become more myself.”
At its core this is a dizzying tale of the fraught and destructive relationship between two solipsistic women.
A labyrinthine narrative follows characters that are mired in their own ambivalence.
Until her divorce Monica Jensen was quite comfortable in her role of a confident ‘blonde’, the school’s ‘golden girl‘. Unable to reconcile herself with the status of divorcee she throws herself into her new job as a teacher. By chance she happens to meet her neighbour, a famous artist and recently widowed Sheila Trask. Monica is drawn by Sheila’s mercurial personality, by her reputation, by her art.
Their relationship is hard to define and from the very beginning we see that is something other than a friendship (or a romance for that matter). Monica is attracted and repulsed by her own obsession with Sheila. They push each other’s boundaries and seem to be perpetually in conflict. They try to have the ‘upper hand’ without knowing themselves why it is they want to control—and posses—each other.
In spite of their different temperaments and dispositions they are both single without any particular close friends or family members. Unmoored, they try to assert their identity through their intense bond which often results in a struggle for power. Part of me wished that they could have explored their relationship more (their sentiments and declarations struck me as those of two lovers). Still, it was fascinating to read about the way in which their toxic relationship threatens their individuality and wellbeing. There was something almost vampiristic about the nature of their attachment to each other.
The dense and laborious prose examines in excruciatingly detail Monica’s psyche. Sheila remains more of a mystery but I still found her just as complex and layered. Many of Monica’s inner struggles would seem trifles by today’s standards (she is incredible conventional in certain aspects) and Sheila might not seem as subversive as we are lead to believe but within the narrative their behaviours make sense (although towards the end they both seem to go off the rails but…).
Solstice is far from an easy read. The ‘story’ is not much of a ‘story’ but rather a convoluted depiction of the often perplexing bond between two women.
I enjoyed the way in which Monica and Sheila change one another and the fact that the book is focused entirely on the two of them (family and love interests are merely blips in the course of the narrative).
I also appreciated the role that art (and especially modern art) plays in the book. There is an ongoing commentary on the way characters perceive Sheila’s art and on the language art critics use. Sheila’s creative process was also intriguing and prompted some of the most emotionally intense scenes.
I would have given this novel a higher rating but for the last part. All of a sudden there are a series of dramatic events happening in quick succession and the ending left me wanting more.