Book Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter

The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Joyce Carol Oates

Harper Perennial

624 pages

The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a lengthy saga about the life of Rebecca Schwart Tignor aka Hazel Jones.  Rebecca’s family has come to the US from Europe as Jewish refugees and Rebecca’s father, Jacob, has gotten a job as a caretaker in Milburn , New York .  The five person family (parents Jacob and Ann, brothers Herschel and Gus, and Rebecca) live in the stone caretaker’s cottage on site.  Anna begins to lose it mentally and Jacob becomes more and more abusive towards his family as the shame of his life in the US eats away at him.  Eventually tragedy strikes the family, which starts Rebecca on a rollercoaster of despair. 

She meets and marries a young man names Niles Tignor as a teenager and she moves away with him and bears a son, Niley.  Despite warning signs, Rebecca has a romantic notion about Niles for the first few years of their marriage, but Niles is also an abusive man and Rebecca is forced to flee from him one night with Niley.  The fear of being on the run is forever present to Rebecca.  She is forced to change hers and Niley’s names and she chooses Zach and Hazel Jones.  The latter name was chosen because Rebecca was mistakenly believed to be a woman named Hazel Jones, and she adopts the moniker without ever knowing who the real Hazel Jones is. 

Meanwhile, Zack has issues of his own.  He slowly developes a hatred for his mother over the loss of his father.   He also turns out to be a prodigy on the piano.  Much of the book revolves around Zack’s growth both as a person and as a pianist.  His anger became more and more present throughout the book and was discouraging.   He became this brooding, sullen, hateful person and I felt that while some of his anger towards his mother was deserved, he also held her responsible for circumstances that were beyond her control.

One thing I definitely did not appreciate about The Gravedigger’s Daughter was the epilogue.  I don’t think I am giving anything away at all by discussing the epilogue, so hopefully no one else feels differently. It is an epistolary format between Rebecca and her long lost cousin.  My grievance is that it has nothing to do with the book.  I felt that it added absolutely nothing.  Has anyone else read the book and, if so, do you agree?  It’s twenty-five years later and Hazel is now back to being Rebecca.  Why? How?  What did the intervening years hold?  I felt no connect with the actual text.  Instead the epilogue just seemed slapped on. 

I had a problem with the ending too.  Sometimes I get sick of people bemoaning ambiguous ending.  Generally, I have no problem when an author leaves things open-ended/.  In fact, I would prefer that rather than trying too hard to come up with the perfect ending because sometimes it just doesn’t work.  But I am telling you, the ending in this book was bizarre.  To me, it was like JCO just stopped in the middle of a chapter or even the middle of a scene.  I can’t make heads or tales out of what I should have gotten from.  Maybe that’s the point?  I don’t know—I finished it before bed last night and was frustrated to the core because of the ending AND the epilogue. 

I am a big JCO fan.  Her writing style is unique and refreshing, and  I am rarely disappointed by her books.  The one exception is We Were the Mulvaneys, which I struglled to get through in high school.  I was young at the time and my taste in literature was a lot less refined than it is now, so I plan on giving We Were another chance in the hopes that my maturity will have changed my viewpoint of the book.  Unfortunately, I feel like The Gravedigger’s Daughter let me down a bit.  It was just dry and not very engaging at all.  I hope it was just a small blip in my appreciation of JCO’s work. 

Other Reviews:

Passion for the Pages

Books Please

Ace and Hoser Blook

Sophisticated Dorkiness

I borrowed this book from my local library.

This book counts towards the Chunkster challenge.

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9 Responses

  1. I am disappointed to see that you didn’t enjoy this. The cover, the title, and the blurb all piqued my interest. The sounds of the depressingly angry Zach combined with the hanging ending and unnecessary epilogue are making me think I’ll try something else for my first try with this author!

  2. Sorry to hear this one didn’t live up to your expectations. I haven’t read many of her books but have been impressed with a couple. I actually did like We Were the Mulvaneys although I read that so long ago I barely remember it now.

    It’s been a while since I read one of her books. I need to see which ones my library has.

  3. We’re of like minds on this one, I read it a few summers ago and didn’t enjoy it. But I did like We Were the Mulvaneys – listened to it on audio though so that may have been an influence. I do remember listening to three or four CD’s and realising it was all still the same afternoon!

  4. This is one of the reasons that 600 page books scare people off–I hate reading all of that only to be disappointed. I’m doing the O.A.T.E.S. challenge and I looked at this one but decided to go with a shorter Oates book. Although, honestly, the woman never wrote a short book!

  5. I generally like JCO’s books, but have been hesitating with this one… think I’ll give it a pass.

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  7. I’m hoping to read my first (yes, I know!) Joyce Carol Oates book this year, and this is one of the ones I was considering. Thanks for your honesty. The premise certainly intrigues me, but the length does seem a little daunting. That’s a lot of book to read to not like the ending.

  8. I just finished this book as well, and posted my own review. I have to agree–I was really disappointed. I did not like the characters, and found the story itself just “arduous,” a word one character in the book uses to describe The Miracle Worker. And you’re right–the ending was bizarre.

  9. […] Original post:  Book Review: The Gravedigger's Daughter « ReviewsbyLola's Blog […]

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