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One should never assume that the fairer sex is the weaker and in this collection of stories, the prodigious Oates reveals the dark side of a woman's psyche, whether inspired by childhood abandonment or a married woman's rapidly escalating sexual obsession. Flying to the very edge of reason, each of these stories plunges into the darker waters of female behavior, some macabre, some grotesque, others giving voice to the secret impulses that drive women to extremes, to the edge of reason, innocent children taxed beyond the fragile structures of their emotional boundaries.
In the first tale, "So Help Me God", a young woman falls in love with a bad boy cop, caught in a web of abuse with the husband she met at fourteen and married at eighteen. The exhilarating sexual energy of their early encounters feels far more dangerous as he toys with her dependency, obsession turning to terror. In "Doll, A Romance of the Mississippi", eerily reminiscent and a cross between "Baby Doll" and Lolita, a young girl travels the Midwest with her (step)father, preying on the sexual fantasies of vulnerable paying customers, frequently betrayed by her own twisted demons, home-schooled from the trunk of their 1953 Buick La Salle. "Madison at Guignol" speaks to a woman's quest for perfection: "But it is my soul I seek continuously, where I can and however." This fashion maven is a victim of her own pathetic hubris, caught in a horror beyond her ability to comprehend.
A personal favorite is "Hunger", one of the longer pieces in The Female of the Species. Kristine, the second wife of a wealthy man, begins a casual dalliance with an enigmatic, exotic stranger, Jean-Claude, a new arrival in the elite oceanside community where she is vacationing with her small daughter. In the accepting society of this well-heeled colony, Kristine opens a door she is unable to close, her impulsive romance imbued with the menace of incipient violence, helpless against her consuming passion for the forbidden, en route to a stunning and elaborate betrayal. There are more: "The Banshee"; "The Haunting"; "Tell Me You Forgive Me?"; "The Angel of Death" and "The Angel of Mercy", each with a uniquely bizarre perspective. This collection is fascinating and unsettling, written in the evocative prose that is natural to this author, with random images of threat and menace, birds screeching through the sky, teeming hordes of feral cats, bucolic scenes threaded with nature's unpredictability, the power of one character's preoccupation with another, stalking death, all the ingredients to send a chill up your spine in the dark of the night. Luan Gaines/ 2006.