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Oates’ Latest Novel a Tale Of a Family Torn Apart

“Carthage” by Joyce Carol Oates; Ecco (482 pages, $26.99)

When a book begins by telling readers that a young woman, 19, has vanished into the deep woods, the expected outcome is rarely happy.

But in Joyce Carol Oates’ newest book, Carthage, perhaps the outcome is not quite so bleak. For the first half of the book, readers make their own assumptions about what has happened to Cressida Mayfield, the younger of Zeno Mayfield’s two daughters, and whether she indeed met a gruesome fate at the hands of her sister’s former fiance.

Oates’ book delves into a far more layered portrayal than merely a young woman’s fate — the relationship between Cressida and her family and why the engagement of her sister, Juliet, and a soldier, Brett, fell apart. Even when he comes home injured, including disfiguring facial scars, Juliet stands by him.

“On the Fourth of July, Juliet had returned home early — and alone — (the most gorgeous, gaudy fireworks had just begun exploding in the sky above Palisade Park) to inform her family that the engagement had ended. Her cheeks were tear-streaked. Her face had lost its luminosity and looked almost plain.”

Although Juliet mourns the loss, it’s not something she discusses with Cressida. In the Mayfield family, Juliet is the pretty one and Cressida is the smart (and somewhat strange) one. Their mother, Arlette, clearly prefers Juliet, while Zeno harbors a soft spot for Cressida.

So when Cressida disappears — and the family quickly learns she last was seen at a somewhat seedy bar with Brett — allegiances are formed among the family and the entire town.

Most of them have no problem believing that Brett harmed and possibly killed Cressida; others believe Cressida is to blame.

Oates delves into the minds of Zeno and Cressida, giving us a glimpse of why they think and act as they do. Arlette and Juliet are not as fully drawn, yet the author paints a scarily accurate picture of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism.

Brett may be the most compelling and mysterious figure for much of the tale. But once Oates takes us into his memories of what he endured during the war in Iraq, we understand a great deal more about his actions that help tear the Mayfield family apart.

Readers in search of a happy ending won’t find it here, but they will find a well-told tale of family, grief and faith.