Book review: This lonely girl will 'Take You There'

    Few book reviews manage to discuss a work by Joyce Carol Oates without mentioning her reputation as the most prolific writer of her generation. It’s an estimation that’s both widely held and difficult to merit over any extended period of time. Oates’ newest offering, “”I’ll Take You There,”” is certainly capable of winning regard both for its status as the most recent in a long line of literary marvels and as a spectacular portrayal of the loneliest girl you never knew.

    Oates centers her story on her nameless anti-heroine, an incredibly intellectual but pathetically awkward would-be sorority pledge. After a brutally neglectful childhood, the bright but socially stunted protagonist proceeds to college, where the story traces her from one obsession to the next. Wearing charity-shop clothes and reading Spinoza, she is pledged to Kappa Gamma Pi. After dealing with every negative stereotypical catastrophe that a sorority could inflict (ostracism, cruelty, ridicule and having her “”sisters”” leech off her academic prowess), Mary Ann, as she is falsely labeled, drops out of the sorority and throws herself into philosophy.

    At that point, she encounters an elusive graduate student, Vernor Matheius, who is both black and older. Since the book is set pre-Civil Rights, conflict eagerly follows her torrid relationship with Vernor, with whom she uses the pseudonym Anellia.

    The constant name-shifting at first seems an overly obvious tactic forcing the reader to link the main character and a constant identity crisis. But any frustration with the author for creating such a glaringly obnoxious device is somewhat assuaged upon the realization that Anellia actually is that pitifully lost. Her desperation to latch onto some form of identity is both touching and disquieting.

    Like so many of Oates’ novels, the key aspect of “”I’ll Take You There”” is not plot, which is convoluted and implausible at best, but rather her characters. The sheer ineptness of Anellia invokes a fantastic range of emotions, among them guilt for not reaching out to the kid no one liked in school. Vernor’s character is no less vivid, establishing himself as a compelling and at times despicable presence. Even the bit part of sorority house-mother Agnes Thayer contains a characterization that is refreshingly three-dimensional and poignant.

    Perhaps one of the most intriguing devices that Oates employs in “”I’ll Take You There”” is her stellar use of interior monologue. The intensely honest first-person narrative is utterly captivating and remarkably gritty. There is a carefully kept distance between Anellia and the people around her — her classmates, her sorority sisters, her family and her lover — that is contrasted with the intimacy between the reader and the main character.

    “”I’ll Take You There”” is not so much a coming-of-age story as a portrait of a young woman constantly surprised to discover the strength of simply enduring. The discovery Anellia makes is one of identity, but it is also one of finding power, finding a voice, finding a way to make it from one day to the next. It is a lengthy look at the difficulty of young adulthood and a tribute to anyone who has ever had to find acceptance, not only among others, but more importantly, within oneself.

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