• The cover of the book them

    them

    One of the books in the very loose Wonderland Quartet (loose in that the books aren’t directly linked, but all deal with class and race relations in the U.S.), Them is the story of the Wendall family living in inner-city Detroit. Their hardships span from 1937 to the race riots in 1967, as Oates traces the fate of young mother Loretta Wendall and her two children, Maureen and Jules, over 40 years. The narrative shifts between these three characters, from Loretta’s becoming a mother, to Jules’ early childhood experiences and later exploits, to Maureen’s hatred for the environment she finds herself surrounded by. 

     
  • The cover of the book Wonderland

    Wonderland

    Another early novel, this one completes the loose Wonderland Quartet of which Them is also a part, and Oates considers it her most bizarre and obsessive novel. It follows the life of a man named Jesse Vogel from his boyhood during the Great Depression all the way into the 1960s during his later life and career. There are two versions of the novel—the original, and the one with the rewritten ending that Oates altered for the paperback release in 1972. When a novel is this haunting to the author, it becomes so to the reader as well. 

     
  • The cover of the book Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart

    Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart

    Despite Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart being nominated for a National Book Award—and it being one of Oates’ most compelling books—it’s often overlooked in best-of lists. Taking place in the 1950s and 1960s (one of Oates’ most-beloved time periods to write about), the novel unfolds in a down-on-its-luck industrial city in upstate New York where two teenagers, Iris Courtney and Jinx Fairchild, commit murder in self-defense and find themselves forever linked by the event.

     
  • The cover of the book We Were the Mulvaneys

    We Were the Mulvaneys

    Featured as an Oprah’s Book Club book pick in 2001, We Were the Mulvaneys is also set in upstate New York, this time in a town called Mt. Ephraim, and is centered around an apparently perfect family that needs—to the point of destruction—to keep proving that they are, indeed, perfect. One of the children in the family, Marianne, is raped after the prom by the son of a family friend. She’s drunk during the event and refuses to press charges, which her father doesn’t understand, and he sends her away for it, beginning the inward and outward collapse of the Mulvaneys.