"You don't have to understand why anything that has happened to you has happened nor do you even have to understand what it is that has happened. You have only to live with the remains."
At the very end of this complex novel, M. R. makes this declaration to herself. I agree with the statement ("buck up and move on") and live by it myself in many ways, but it seemed like it would have been a better opener to this book. After Oates tells her story, M. R. is much less well adjusted than she was at the beginning before she took the walk by the river and Carlos (always some male figure to the rescue here) comes to her assistance.
The course of the novel follows the psychological unraveling of M. R. The cause of this unraveling is never made (to my mind) satisfactorily clear. In the beginning, she has moved on; she does know that she was mudgirl; she has kept her past to herself, but it is not a past that she has forgotten. She is very stressed and lonely and (as Hans Schneider first told her and she remembers at least 3 other times through the course of the book) being alone prevents one from ever turning off one's mind. And so, at the end of a very long first year as President of Princeton ("the University"), she has a mental and physical breakdown. This I buy, this I will grant Oates as believable.
HOWEVER, I do not get why she does not know to where she is driving in October when she bumbles off the road and hallucinates the Black River Cafe. I do not believe that she did not know where she was (near the site of mudgirl's rescue) or that she did not remember the pivotal event when she later recalls talking to her parents about it and reading about the Skedds' house fire.
I do not get why the events in modern time happen in the way that they happen in this novel. I find the whole psychology of it to be backwards. I think Oates explores some great themes (more below), but I think M. R. is portrayed as too naive in the beginning and too bedraggled in the end. There is simply no motivation for her unraveling.
That said, it was compelling and interesting and Oates tries (although maybe too hard at times) to describe the imbalance of power between men and women (even highly educated liberals): "It was like an aggressive male to not-see, or to ignore, discomfort in another." and "She felt her heart expand with an emotion she could not have named--not love, not sexual desire, but a wish to touch, and to protect; a wish to console. She thought there could be nothing more tender between a man and a woman, than this wish to console." and "Did you think you could escape forever? Did you think you could escape this--forever? It was meant: her femaleness. That she was a woman, in the body into which she'd been born. She had know this--had she? She had not known this, she had cast the knowledge from her, repelled, disbelieving. She had not loved any man, really--she had not had any child nor had she ever been impregnated, the thought had filled her with anxiety, disdain. For that was not her. That was not her wish." and "M.R. must always assure the listener that beneath the raw plea was spiritual well-being, good common sense. Not any sort of hysterical female." and "Always a relief when the astronomer-lover departed. For now the woman could be herself--whatever diminished self."
Oates also explores the imbalance of power between children and adults: "For what were the actions of adults except games, and variants of games. The child was given to know that a game would come to an end unlike other actions that were not-games and could not be ended but sprawled on and on like a highway or a railroad tract or the river". M. R., especially, was a child for whom childhood was dependent on unreliable adults (until she met the Neukirchens).
And of course, there are lots of little quips about class: "Even the word Please felt coercive to her. When you said Please to those who, like Carlos, had no option but to obey, what were you really saying?"
I also liked her reason for why speaking in front of a group is sometimes easier than speaking to individuals: "No speaker makes eye contact with his audience. The larger the audience, the easier. That is the secret."
Overall it was definitely worth reading and sparked some interesting thoughts; I felt that some of the time Oates was copping out (with the use of dream and amnesia not completely consistent throughout) and other times that she was too heavy handed (with some of her feminist comments, especially in M. R.'s dream of leaving the pool), otherwise it would have been a five star.