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Mudwoman: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates
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Mudwoman: A Novel (edition 2013)

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Dear Reader,

This is a book about the true development of a crushed human soul. A woman who has lived with a confusing and troubled past. A past that she has broken away from to become a reputable and accomplished President of a very prestigious University (the first FEMALE one). Even though M.R. has gained acclaim from her academic career, we slowly see her unravel in a horrific downward spiral. It brings the reader to a very strange place, that has you wondering what might be real and what might be hallucination. This is something that Oates does very well and really brings about that gothic and dark feel she is so known for.

We're first introduced to M.R. (Mudwoman) as a child who lives with an overtly religious zealot mother and her creepy pedophilic boyfriend. There is no mention if this man is her father, and later on even M.R. reflects on this, wondering if she ever even had a father. Within the first few chapters (might even be the first one, can't quite remember) we read in horror as her mother takes this precious little girl and throws her into a mud pit to suffocate (hence the title of the book). By the good graces of a local who is guided by this mysterious "King of Crows" (a recurring animal guide in the story), he finds this child in the mud and rescues her. This all happens very early and is even mentioned on the book flap, so I don't consider this a spoiler. The child is then taken to an orphanage and adopted shortly after by a Quaker family, very kind and loving but they have a strange story of their own. I won't get into this because I think there is a pivotal point to the back-story of this family, one I don't want to ruin for you.

The book goes back and forth from present to past as we watch M.R. slowly deteriorate and travel back to places that remind her of her past. Oates did this so smoothly, it wasn't hard to follow at all. I love when an Author has a good grasp of when to move the story from present to past without losing too much of the feeling. You find yourself wondering what exactly is going on, but not because of the time frame. This feeling is from all the daydreams, hallucinations and events that happen and you don't quite know which is which. Is what just happened a dream? Reality? It was kind of fun trying to figure it all out without getting you lost in the process.

I think my favorite part of this book is the major theme of feminism. Yes, Oates tends to have a heavy hand on this theme in most of her books... but does that make it any less important? No! Mostly because she does it so gosh darn well. You have to remember that Oates was born in the late 1930's, during a period of time that was extremely enclosed. She grew up on a farm and attended a school with only one classroom! She was given a typewriter at age 14 and has been writing ever since. She really makes the perfect feminism writer, although she claims she doesn't like that label and would rather be known as "a woman who writes". I just adore everything about this woman, so yeah... I'm pretty biased.

Getting back to the book, Mudwoman is so chock full of symbolism that at times I was wondering if I was fully understanding everything there was to the story. For example, during M.R.'s travels she came across many physical bridges that also played a huge part in unraveling her past. These bridges were big turning points for her, crossing them brought her clarity to her past. This was probably one of the most obvious symbols in the book and I'm sure I missed quite a few of the more inconspicuous ones. This would be a book to re-read, knowing that the second attempt would bring about much more clarity to the story. If you want to challenge yourself a little, I suggest reading this book and trying to reflect on what Oates really was trying to convey with Mudwoman. I would be interested to see what others thought.

Happy Reading,
AmberBug ( )
  yougotamber | Aug 22, 2014 |
Mudwoman drew me in quickly with its incredibly unique character and circumstances. I found the story of an abused girl's beginnings altogether believable in its depth. The story moved quickly and then suddenly seemed to veer off course. The latter part of the book becomes less believable (even though we're seeing the world from the inside of this character), and I lost a sense of connection with the girl-become-woman. I did finish but found the ending unsatisfying after such wonderful character development and storytelling. ( )
  Maryka | Oct 21, 2013 |
The main character of this book, Meredith, is the first female president of Princeton [or at least of an unnamed ivy league school in New Jersey]. At the beginning, she is capable and busy, rushing to this or that meeting, solving this or that problem. Gradually, she starts to feel paranoid, to feel "less than", to be physically unable to fulfill her obligations. As a woman in a largely male dominated field, I have often struggled with these feelings, of trying to fit my femaleness into a box that doesn't feel right, of having to be more aggressive, of having to meet people's expectations of how I should appear. the thoughts and feelings that Meredith has are something that I identified with in many ways but which I had never seen in print. The cause to which which Meredith attributes Meredith's break, however, proved to be quite unfulfilling for me. I was left with the feeling that perhaps it is me that is the problem.
The story of Meredith's career is paired with the story of her childhood in an upstate New York. She is born in the fictional Adirondack county of Beechum. Although the name of the county is invented, Oates' roots growing up in upstate New York allow her to portray the area with accuracy. I am a native northern New Yorker and haven't seen many other portrayals of the poverty and meanness that can exist alongside the beauty of that country. As Oates' describes it is an area "where poverty has become a natural resource: social workers, welfare workers, community-medical workers, public defenders, prison and psychiatric hospital staffers, family court officials---all thrived in such barren soil."
I have purposely not provided many details about the plot because it would---at least for the first three quarters---suffer from over explanation. I liked the dreamy tone of it that led to a confusion of what had really happened and what hadn't. ( )
  elmoelle | Aug 9, 2013 |
In looking at reviews for "Mudwoman", I went to several different sources. On one website I found several reviews and myriad quotes from different sources for reviews, newspapers, etc. The consensus on this site was that it was a fabulous book, well-written with Oates' usual genius for insight into her characters, and the feeling of menace that many of her books have, which the main character fails to sense until it is often too late. This book in particular was considered somewhat of a departure for her, a foray into new territory. There was not a negative review to be found, but only praise for her superb writing and spot-on account of the breakdown of a professional accomplished woman when the ghosts of her past become too much to bear.
On the other hand, on another site, I found dissenters. While some enjoyed "Mudwoman" in much the same way that had previously enjoyed Oates' other books, there were also several that felt that she was not on the mark with this novel. The writing seemed disjointed and difficult to follow. I think they were probably correct about that, but I think that says more about her main character, M. R. Neukirchen's state of mind than Oates' writing. One reviewer felt it was an utter waste of her time. Another found that she actually abandoned the book,something she had never done with any of Oates' other books.
Personally, I found "Mudwoman" consistently entertaining, although I agree that it was difficult reading at times, because the reader could not always be sure whether M.R. was hallucinating or whether the scenes were actually happening to her. That was part of the dark atmosphere that Oates' builds around M.R. Neukirchen. The first female President of a University, she lives in a rather eerie house provided for the President by the University. She is often alone, as her professional life has not provided for many close relationships to develop. While she attends many dinners, breakfasts, lunches and opportunities to mingle, she never really does, as she has secrets in her life that preclude close friendships. She has a (secret) lover. Or at least we think she does because after all, she is the only one to see him. It is as the book progresses that we see that all is not well with M.R. and we begin to doubt much of what she is experiencing. I found the novel engrossing, and the characters fully developed, I thought it was unique that Oates' was able to bring us along, moving the story forward while at the same time, we were experiencing a mind that is not really seeing what is happening around her, but rather being in an altered state. I highly recommend this book, and I look forward to another book from Joyce Carol Oates,whom I consider one of our most accomplished writers today. ( )
  mmignano11 | Jan 28, 2013 |
Usually I like JCO and I really tried to like this book, but it was a chore and just a huge downer overall. Meredith is plagued by her past as a child left to die on the banks of a river, but she is rescued, nursed back to health and eventually adopted by a kindly couple. she rises rapidly in the world of higher education and is named the President of a prestigious university at age 41. that's when it all starts to unravel for M.R., as she is known professionally. Her grasp on reality is seriously compromised. Most of the plot takes place in dream sequences, so it doesn't really happen at all. and typical of JCO, all the men are rapist monsters and the worst possible scenario is the one that plays out. ( )
  mojomomma | Jun 24, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062095625, Hardcover)

A riveting novel that explores the high price of success in the life of one woman—the first female president of a lauded ivy league institution—and her hold upon her self-identity in the face of personal and professional demons, from Joyce Carol Oates, author of the New York Times bestseller A Widow’s Story

Mudgirl is a child abandoned by her mother in the silty flats of the Black Snake River. Cast aside, Mudgirl survives by an accident of fate—or destiny. After her rescue, the well-meaning couple who adopt Mudgirl quarantine her poisonous history behind the barrier of their middle-class values, seemingly sealing it off forever. But the bulwark of the present proves surprisingly vulnerable to the agents of the past.

Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Her commitment to her career and moral fervor for her role are all-consuming. Involved with a secret lover whose feelings for her are teasingly undefined, and concerned with the intensifying crisis of the American political climate as the United States edges toward war with Iraq, M.R. is confronted with challenges to her leadership that test her in ways she could not have anticipated. The fierce idealism and intelligence that delivered her from a more conventional life in her upstate New York hometown now threaten to undo her.

A reckless trip upstate thrusts M.R. Neukirchen into an unexpected psychic collision with Mudgirl and the life M.R. believes she has left behind. A powerful exploration of the enduring claims of the past, Mudwoman is at once a psychic ghost story and an intimate portrait of a woman cracking the glass ceiling at enormous personal cost, which explores the tension between childhood and adulthood, the real and the imagined, and the “public” and “private” in the life of a highly complex contemporary woman.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:59 -0400)

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M.R. Neukirchen--the first female president of a lauded Ivy League institution--struggles to hold onto her self-identity in the face of personal and professional demons.

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