BY ROSAMOND SMITH
by Claire McManus
Our book club's book for June was Double Delight by Rosamond
Smith, a pseudonym for Joyce Carol Oates. We like to try
a different type of book each month, and for June we decided
to try a book with an ambiguous ending. Our members got
suggestions from various places, and when all was said and
done, this was the one we settled on.
What we found most interesting was the way we approached
the book with preconceived notions of what the reading experience
would be like, perhaps because Oates seems to have become
so ubiquitous. That led us to understand a little better
why a writer would choose to work under a pseudonym.
The story revolves around an affluent man, Terence, who
lives in an upscale New Jersey suburb called Queenston.
(We got a good laugh out of that, since most of us knew
somehow that JCO teaches at and lives in Princeton.) His
wife is a bit of a witch, but he's living a very nice lifestyle
and has what many would consider a dream job at an arts
foundation. But his life changes when he's called for jury
duty in Trenton. The plaintiff is Ava-Rose Renfrew, leader
of a clan who lives in a shadowy, scary world near the banks
of the Delaware River in Trenton. She's a sultry, mysterious,
possibly deadly force, but Terence becomes obsessed with
her and descends into one disturbing situation after another.
Before you know it, he's having an affair with Ava-Rose,
stealing money from the foundation to help her out, and
many other things that would be spoilers if I wrote about
Most of us felt that this was a genuinely creepy book. The
suspense builds steadily throughout, and things get exceedingly
disturbing as the protagonist continues on his descent from
affluent family man into criminal and, possibly, victim
of Ava-Rose Renfrew and her disturbing family. The ending
is indeed ambiguous, and we thought it worked extremely
well in the book. We never really know whether the Renfrew
family is a family of psychopaths or not.
Many of us read Janet Evanovich regularly, and it was interesting
for us to compare Stephanie Plum's Trenton with Smith/Oates'
version of the same city. Both make the city out to be a
dangerous place, but Oates' version was much, much more
menacing, with distinct "white trash" overtones.
We wondered if this could be a bit of snobbery on Oates'
part, but we did think that she is an equal opportunity
satirist, as the upscale town of Queenston receives an equally
The idea of the femme fatale is a classic, of course, and
it does often lead to melodrama, but most of us felt that
Oates does a nice job with the character of Ava-Rose. She's
slightly over the top, slightly unbelievable. But she's
really just a catalyst. The main character is Terence, and
Smith's portrayal of him - and his increasing obsessiveness
- is very effective. I think the portrayal worked well for
so many of us because we spent a good deal of our discussion
talking about people we'd known (male and female) who were
practically destroyed by their relationship with a member
of the opposite sex. I guess we, as professionals and avid
readers, don't spend a lot of time thinking about sexual
obsession, but it's out there!
Interestingly, those who are not fans of J.C. Oates were
less impressed by the book. The criticism is that the book
is overblown, overdone, melodramatic, with writing that
seems falsely breathless and overwritten. Two of our members
felt that the book was nothing special, and they objected
to the idea of the basic plot mechanism, "Nice man
married to Ice Queen." (One of our members mentioned
that this plot was very often used by Rod Serling in The
Twilight Zone, 30 years earlier.)
Overall, though, we would recommend this is a very creepy
read. I have read a few Oates books (the more mainstream
ones), and I was impressed by her ability to cross genres.
We think that we are going to continue choosing intense
books for the club. While we have read lighter books in
the past, we don't find them as easy to discuss. Though,
as one member said, we will certainly change our mind again,
when we get tired of all the intensity!
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