This book has recently been rewritten by Ms. Oates. I am reviewing the original version. I suggest that you begin with this one, and move on to the revision if you like this edition.
A Garden of Earthly Delights looks at life's challenges as seen by an exploited, powerless woman who lacks a religious foundation . . . but has a crude beauty and appeal that are irresistible to men. Through her eyes, we see the importance of being self-confident and focusing on the main chance . . . whatever that might be. In the process, her heart is darkened and her life damaged by the hard choices she has had to make. That darkness and damage seep out of her to contaminate those around her. In the end, a fresh young beauty leaves behind her a morass of rotting vegetation.
The book has three parts. In the first part, we meet Clara Walpole who is the much-loved daughter of her father, Carleton Walpole, who is a rough and tumble migrant farm worker who drags his wife and family behind him like torn cobwebs as he focuses on his own pleasure. The family gradually disintegrates under the pressure of the hard living and Carleton's inability to provide loving support. In the second part, Clara develops relationships with two other men as a teenager after she leaves her family. In the third part, Clara devotes her life to her son, Swan (aka Steven), who must stake a life for himself in Clara's husband's family. Each of these parts is written like a novella, but the three are connected through Clara.
The first part struck me as extremely fine writing of the sort that reminded me of John Steinbeck's novels about migrant farm workers. Unlike Mr. Steinbeck, Ms. Oates has a way of capturing only moments and events that crystallize our understanding of her characters and their lives. To me, reading this part was like occasionally glimpsing through a peephole into someone's life . . . but only at the most revealing moments. Interestingly, Clara often doesn't quite know what's happening since she has had both a deprived childhood and is a child. You as the reader have to interpret what is happening, which makes for a story element that makes the book read a little like detective fiction. This aspect of the book reminded me of William Faulkner's writing about the Snopes. If the book stopped with part one, I would have rated it as five stars and praised the book to the heavens. But I would have wondered what happened next to Clara.
In the second part, we find out how a young teenager builds a life for herself through the aid of Lowry, the man who helps her escape from her family. To me, Lowry is the most interesting character in the book. Ms. Oates reveals his nature very slowly, and he brings many surprises to the story. Although deeply flawed as a person, he tries to do the right things for Clara . . . and ends up leaving her at a very difficult crossroads. From her experiences with him, she learns the duality of love/hate that comes to dominate her life. This part of the book is very fine and I highly recommend it.
In the third part of the book, Ms. Oates seems to fall into clichés. Everything is so foreshadowed that I felt like I could have written out the plot in detail before reading it. There were few surprises, and those were unimportant. I would have enjoyed the book much more if I had skipped this part. I would rate the third part as a two star book if it were a stand-alone. Unless you feel compelled to find out what happens to Clara and her son, I suggest that you consider skipping this part. Perhaps you could read the first 25 pages to see how it sits with you.
As I finished the book, I came away thinking how important it is that those who are deprived of love and care receive attention from everyone else. One of the book's lessons, however, is that such attention must be effective . . . rather than simply well-meaning . . . or it will do more harm than good.