Review: Cardiff, by the Sea by Joyce Carol Oates

I’m just a little bit amazed that I read a book of short stories and will have no trouble giving it a star rating… for once, I actually felt the same about every novella in the collection: I loved them all.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads blurb:

Joyce Carol Oates, the “grand mistress of ghoulishness” (Publishers Weekly), showcases her mastery in four deeply disturbing novellas that will leave the reader both quaking and pining for more In the titular novella, an academic in Pennsylvania discovers a terrifying trauma from her past after inheriting a house in Cardiff, Maine from someone she has never heard of. Mia, the protagonist of “Miao Dao,” is a pubescent girl overcome with loneliness, who befriends a feral cat that becomes her protector from the increasingly aggressive males that surround her.

A brilliant but shy college sophomore realizes that she is pregnant in “Phan-tomwise: 1972.” Distraught, she allows a distinguished visiting professor to take her under his wing, though it quickly becomes evident that he is interested in more than an academic mentorship. Lastly, “The Surviving Child” is Stefan, who was spared when his mother, a famous poet, killed his sister and herself. Stefan’s father remarries, but his young wife is haunted by dead poet’s voice dancing in the wind, an inexplicably befouled well, and a compulsive draw to the same gar-age that took two lives.

In these psychologically daring, chillingly suspenseful pieces, Joyce Carol Oates writes about women facing threats past and present.

I’m not even sure I can pick a favorite of these four stories, but I will try.

My thoughts

I have a whole lot of Oates’ work on my never-ending TBR, but prior to this collection, I had only read her Blonde, which I liked, but didn’t exactly have me clamoring to read another right away. Two-plus years later, and I was intrigued enough by the description of Cardiff, by the Sea to request it on NetGalley, and I was fortunate enough to receive both a digital and audiobook ARC. The writing is sublime. While the stories aren’t related, they are all suffused with dreamy, unsettling mood that was impossible for me not to savor. I read these stories slowly and reread many passages.

The title novella, Cardiff, by the Sea, immediately grabbed ahold of my attention and did not let up. This first story sets that creeping mood, and I still don’t think I’ve figured enigmatic main character Clare out yet, after both reading and listening to her tale. A truly horrible, previously unknown background unfurls before her in a hazy, confusing, delectable manner leading to a stunningly perfect ending.

Miao Dao is told through the appropriately confusing pubescent perspective of Mia, who has been ignored by her mom while being let down and pushed around by too many males and takes comfort in the neighborhood feral cat population. This one is positively creepy and totally brilliant.

In Phan-tomwise: 1972, Alice is a quiet, innocent undergrad who finds herself bewilderingly taken advantage of by a couple of subpar examples of human males. This story when off on a completely different tangent than I was expecting, with a goosebump-inducing jaw-dropping ending that I can’t stop thinking about.

Main character Elizabeth finds herself in a perplexing and vaguely menacing situation in The Surviving Child, which continues in that pervasive sense of creeping doom. Almost a ghost story, almost a mystery, all fascinating.

Each of these stories feature female characters who find themselves in upsetting situations, largely at the mercy of problematic male characters, and struggle to surface from their confusion and take control of their situations. All of these novellas feature at least one total bastard, poor excuse for a ‘man.’ Every one of them is beautifully written, darkly atmospheric, and thought-provoking. Absolute perfection in the form of short stories.

The audiobook from Highbridge Audio is narrated skillfully by Lauren Ezzo. Excellent pacing and character voices, and at the risk of being redundant, dreamy narration. I was thrilled to be able to listen to this story as I read (one of my favorite things to do with a great book).

Thank you to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for my copies of this stunning collection, in exchange for this honest review.

All four of the novellas are 5-star reads for me, but if forced to choose a favorite, I pick Phan-tomwise: 1972. Still thinking about it!

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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