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Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
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Bellefleur (1980)

by Joyce Carol Oates

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[Bellefleur] by [[Joyce Carol Oates]] was a sprawling, rambling, endlessly digressive Gothic saga about multiple generations of family in upstate New York, timeframe squishy (a bit more on that later), living together (for the most part) in an often surreal castle. There is a loose forward-moving narrative that tells the story of how one estranged member of the family comes to dominate it by marrying her cousin and embarking on a crusade to rebuild the family's lost glory, but this isn't really a book "about" that. It's really more like a huge collection of short stories about a single family. Each chapter is about a different member of the family or incident in their history, jumping around through space and time.

Weirdness abounded in this book, with elements of what I guess would be called Gothic-tinged magical realism? Mysterious weather events; a mythical-seeming pregnancy resulting in a deformed child whose semi attached twin is simply lopped off at home like its no big deal; enchanted mirrors; people disappearing in strange rooms, ponds; an abundance of runaways and foundlings; ghosts, shapeshifters, possible vampires, giant mythical beasts rumored to carry off children.

While there is an elaborately constructed family tree in the front of the book, one gets the sense that this is a bit of a joke, as only a few of the individuals present have dates associated with their names & these names are often re-used in later generations. Additionally, there is a weird sense that all of the characters are existing at the same time, either because they are physically present or because stories and myths about them permeate the lives of the current generation. Such as the founder of the dynasty and builder of the castle, who upon his death demanded that his skin be stretched over a civil war era drum and that the drum be beaten to announce mealtimes and the arrival of guests. Or the fact that the Bellefleur dead are said to live underneath the waters of a pond on the grounds.

Ultimately I didn't love this book, which was often just a little too aimless and digressing, but it is definitely one that I will remember. ( )
  fannyprice | Apr 18, 2014 |
Truly fantastic in a crazy way. ( )
  annesadleir | Oct 20, 2012 |
For those who don’t remember the 70s, or weren’t alive for them, the middle of the decade was filled with preparations for the 200th anniversary celebrations commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the atmosphere surrounding this, there was a seemingly insatiable appetite for famly saga stories and their various television adaptations. There was also a parallel surge of interest in geneaology.

To give you some examples:
[The Kent Family Chronicles] (8 book series) by John Jakes, (first book published in 1974) were written specifically to commemorate the bicentennial. [Roots] by Alex Haley was published in1976; and the telelvision mini-series followed in 1977. These books were BIG bestsellers, and it certainly seemed that everyone was reading them! (including me).

Howard Fast’s [The Immigrants] was published in 1977 (beginning a 6 book family saga). Television mini-series of other family sagas of the era included: Mann’s Buddenbrooks, 1979; and Steinbeck’s East of Eden, 1979. And yes, we were all reading those books too.

So, with all this national pride, celebration, and interest in family sagas, is it any surprise that Joyce Carol Oates might reflect upon our nation's first 200 years, and the whole family saga thing, and pick up her pen in 1978 (perhaps, with tongue firmly planted in cheek) to begin writing her own contribution?

[Bellefleur] is a sweeping Gothic tale, a satirical family saga which spans several hundred years. It is set in upstate New York near the Canadian border (similar to the Adirondack area where Lake Placid* is located). In the book’s first few pages there is a large family tree diagram, and after seeing it, one might approach the novel with some trepidation. The story is rooted in the ‘current’ generation (mostly the early 20th century) and from there it moves back and forth across the generations in a non-linear, willy-nilly manner. I found myself flipping back to the family tree often until I realized that “order” in the tree truly doesn’t matter to the story.

Bellefleur Manor and the family are seemingly inseparable. It’s a castle to some, a prison to others. And what a parade of inhabitants! The Bellefleurs are a family of eccentrics, maybe something like what would result of cross-breeding between the Kennedys and the Addams Family. There are murderers, millionaires, religious nuts, poets and prodigies. For example, the legacy of Raphael Bellefleur was that after death a Calvary drum be made with his treated and stretched skin and played to announce meals, guests arrivals...etc.! Leah Pym Bellefleur (before she was actually a Bellefleur) creepily had a large pet spider named Love. Young Samuel Bellefleur disappears into a mirror in the Turquoise Room with some escaped slaves and is never seen again. One can see why the youngest generation sees the crumbling manor as a prison and longs to escape ...

Told in a somewhat elevated voice which gives the story a sweeping or epic tone, the tale of the Bellefleurs is at once riveting, often almost comic, and more or less exhausting. According to her diaries, Oates was quite obsessed in her writing of it, and the book does have an obsessive feel. The amount of detail in it is astounding. I did not read it straight through but chose to take breaks to read other books.

There are fantasy elements in the story, the first I have come across any in of Oates’ works. They are beautifully executed and integrated into the story, and used in a symbolic way. I remember finishing one chapter and thought, ‘what just happened there? Was he a vampire?” (the reading equivalent of rubbing your eyes and looking at something again because you can’t believe what you have seen).

I know I’m not being terrible cohesive here, but the book is so wonderfully congested and there so much one could say, and so many angles one could look at it from.. Even as I spread the reading of this novel across months, it was a terrific read, one that I will read again. It will not be my favorite Oates’ work, but it’s up there.

*Ok, maybe not the Kennedys
**And to the family saga list, for fun, let’s add John Crowley’s [Little, Big] (1981)
***An interesting tidbit: although Oates sets many of her books in this region, the Adirondacks were preparing for the 1980 Olympics while she was writing this book...
***Considering all the family saga books I did read in the 70s, it's a wonder I did not read [Bellefleur] in 1980, but my reading shifted at the end of '79 when I had my first child. ( )
4 vote avaland | Jan 11, 2012 |
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is ranked as one of my most favorite novels of all time; I savored this gothic tale cover to cover and didn't want it to end. It possesses a life of it's own, the characters became ghosts that would haunt me after setting it aside after a short reading and I would look forward to picking it up again. After I finished it, I felt homesick in a peculiar way that no book has ever done to me before; it is very likely that I will revisit the pages of Bellefleur again. Each chapter is an opulent sliver of time that peers into the lives and thoughts of the residents of Bellefleur Manor, an American family of notorious distinction. Their history is rife with joys and sorrows deftly exposed by the astounding craft that is signature in JCO's prolific literary career. The mesmerizing shifts of time, like historical memories, travel from the heights of the imposing Mount Blanc, wind through the decadent rooms of Bellefleur Manor, and plunge into the depths of mysterious Lake Noir where disconcerting spirits dwell. The fanciful characters endear themselves because of their human vitality and cause despair because of their human flaws; they are very tangible and seductive in spite of the brief glimpses into their lives. This is not a book for the faint of heart for it isn't a serene walk in the walled garden of Bellefleur Manor. JCO reveals the grotesque that exists within the soul of the American dream, and with abrupt grace she divulges the unforeseen twists of fate that arise with incredible violence that will leave you reeling with astonishment. It is a unique and contemplative tale, not to be consumed in a few sittings; however, the temptation of the eloquent prose begs to be gorged until the reader is sated. Open this book and open your mind, and give your imagination a workout. If you read this book with a rigid, black and white mind-set you will come away frustrated by it. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for something out of the ordinary to read. ( )
1 vote LauraJWRyan | Jun 5, 2011 |
Completely engrossing, strange, weird, melodramatic and above all fun. Someday I'll re-read it. I remember my sister was reading it in college and I picked it up when I was visiting. ( )
  woodge | Nov 20, 2009 |
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It was many years ago in that dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time before Germaine's birth (nearly twelve months before her birth), on a night in late September stirred by innumerable frenzied winds, like spirits contending with one another - now plaintively, now angrily, now with a subtle cellolike delicacy capable of making the flesh rise on one's arms and neck - a night so sulfurous, so restless, so swollen with inarticulate longing that Leah and Gideon Bellefleur in their enormous bed quarreled once again, brought to tears because their love was too ravenous to be contained by their mere mortal bodies; and their groping, careless, anguished words were like strips or raw silk rubbed violently together (for each was convince the other did not, could not, be equal to his love - Leah doubted that any man was capable of a love so profound it could be silent, like a forest pond; Gideon doubted that any woman was capable of comprehending the nature of a man's passion, which might tear through him, rendering him broken and exhausted, as vulnerable as a smalll child): it was on this tumultuous rain-lashed night that Mahalaleel came to Bellefleur Manor on the western shore of the great Lake Noir, where he was to stay for nearly five years.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452267943, Paperback)

A wealthy and notorious clan, the Bellefleurs live in a region not unlike the Adirondacks, in an enormous mansion on the shores of mythic Lake Noir. They own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires; a mass murderer; a spiritual seeker who climbs into the mountains looking for God; a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch; a baby, Germaine - the heroine of the novel - and her parents, Leah and Gideon. Written with a voluptuousness and immediacy unusual even for Oates, "Bellefleur" is widely regarded as one of her masterworks.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:55 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A wealthy and notorious clan, the Bellefleurs live in a region not unlike the Adirondacks, in an enormous mansion on the shores of mythic Lake Noir. They own vast lands and profitable businesses, they employ their neighbors, and they influence the government. A prolific and eccentric group, they include several millionaires, a mass murderer, a spiritual seeker who climbs into the mountains looking for God, a wealthy noctambulist who dies of a chicken scratch. Bellefleur traces the lives of several generations of this unusual family. At its center is Gideon Bellefleur and his imperious, somewhat psychic, very beautiful wife, Leah, their three children (one with frightening psychic abilities), and the servants and relatives, living and dead, who inhabit the mansion and its environs. Their story offers a profound look at the world's changeableness, time and eternity, space and soul, pride and physicality versus love. Bellefleur is an allegory of caritas versus cupiditas, love and selflessness versus pride and selfishness. It is a novel of change, baffling complexity, mystery.… (more)

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