The opening novella, “Evil Eye,” is a powerful story about a woman who could be on the verge of losing her mind. In a fit of despair, she has married an older man who crushes what is left of her spirit. One of the man’s ex-wives tries to warn her to no avail.
The best novella is “So Near Anytime Always.” Not only is this a great title, but it perfectly captures what Oates does so well. A highly-vulnerable girl wrongly believes a predator loves her.
Desmond appears charming at first. He is the dapper “boyfriend” that she has always dreamed about. Lizbeth believes a boyfriend as a “passport” to a new country.
Readers, however, can sense something wrong from the beginning. This is how Lizbeth meets Desmond: she looks up from her homework to see a boy staring intensely at her. Whether she realized it or not, he stalks her from that moment onward.
He appears well-educated, rich, and polite but becomes increasingly controlling. Desmond’s true character quickly reveals itself after a disastrous violin lesson.
“The Execution” is less satisfying because the narrator, Bart, is so unlikeable. In chilling details, “The Execution” depicts an entitled college-aged kid who decides to murder his parents. Nothing unfolds as he plans.
The last novella, “The Flatbed,” captures the feelings of a repressed woman. She suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a relative. Perhaps no other author captures the victim’s viewpoint as well as Oates.
Like all the novellas in this collection, “The Flatbed” ends on just the right ironic note. Has her fiance’ revenge upon her perpetrator freed Cecilia from her damaging past? Or has she just traded one secret for another?