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Book Review: A Garden of Earthly Delights


Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland Quartet comprises four remarkable novels that explore social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. In A Garden of Earthly Delights, Oates presents one of her most memorable heroines, Clara Walpole, the beautiful daughter of Kentucky-born migrant farmworkers. Desperate to rise above her haphazard existence of violence and poverty, determined not to repeat her mother’s life, Clara struggles for independence by way of her relationships with four very different men: her father, a family man turned itinerant labourer, smouldering with resentment; the mysterious Lowry, who rescues Clara as a teenager and offers her the possibility of love; Revere, a wealthy landowner who provides Clara with stability; and Swan, Clara’s son, who bears the psychological and spiritual burden of his mother’s ambition.

A masterly work from a writer with “the uncanny ability to give us a cinemascopic vision of her America” (National Review), A Garden of Earthly Delights is the opening stanza in what would become one of the most powerful and engrossing story arcs in literature.

A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first novel in the Wonderland Quartet. The books that complete this acclaimed series, Expensive People, Them, and Wonderland, are also available from the Modern Library.


What a joy it was to come across an amazing literature writer in a small book shop in Paris! 

After reading the background of Oates, I felt incredibly blessed to have stumbled across her work and at the same time wondering where has she been.

I have been craving something different, that would educate me in my reading that will actually hold my interest. Although no one has said it was absolutely necessary to read the books in order, to be on the safe side, I chose ‘A Garden of Earthly Delights’, instead of Expensive People.

For those unfamiliar with this critically acclaimed novel, it was originally published in 1966. The author was only in her mid-twenties, at that time, talk about being motivated! Oates, is a copious writer however, these novels can get some getting used to due to their nature.

This novel, however, may not be for everyone, and the younger audiences like myself would find the characters and they’re backgrounds a bit harsh and may have a hard time relating, or coping with the author’s prose.

For me, at times I have found this Oate’s style of writing to be rich in its nature, as it can be a lot to take in at times as the male characters did annoy me often. The era and the situations described here are probably more accurate than people wish to think, which is another reason why it was difficult at times. However, I enjoy this writing style as it carefully goes into detail.

The work camps during the depression were harsh; the hard work, with families living in incomprehensible conditions. Clara the main character was born and raised in a farm, her mother shortly passed away when she was a few years old. Her father was a rough, conceited, alcoholic. However, he always showed Clara a certain favouritism which I found a bit creepy at times. However, he turns on her one fateful day and hits her, causing her to run away.

During the last third of the novel is when the characteristics of this really took shape and the story grabbed my attention. I cannot say I loved how it all ended up, and it is to my understanding this book has undergone a major rewrite from the notes in this copy I had, so I can only give you my opinion of the 2006 version I found in the Parisian streets.

Clara’s character grows in bounds, takes on many different forms and it was interesting to watch the transformation, although she still remained an enigma. Oates gives up a bird’s eye view of life, its hardships, and tragedies.

Clara develops from when she was born, to young adult, to parenthood, to a woman totally exhausted by life. This denotes the lifestyle she paved as she made a life that was better than her beginnings could have predicted. She became a strong woman despite errors in judgment and the uncontrollable events life that came along.

This novel is considered a literary classic, and I can see why. Even though, it is not exactly an uplifting, feel good story, and is considered heavy reading, I am glad I took the time to read it.

4/5 Stars


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