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 them here.

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 rough treatment.

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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