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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

A Fair Maiden

A Fair Maiden 

Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Year: 2010
Length: 165 pages

Other Editions



Publisher's Blurb

Sixteen year-old Katya Spivak is out for a walk on the gracious streets of Bayhead Harbor with her two summer babysitting charges when she's approached by silver-haired, elegant Marcus Kidder. At first, his interest in her seems harmless, even pleasant; like his name, a sort of gentle joke. His beautiful home, the children's books that he's written, his classical music, the marvelous art in his study, his lavish presents to her: Mr. Kidder's life couldn't be more different from Katya's drab working-class existence back home in South Jersey, or more enticing. But by degrees, almost imperceptibly, something changes, and posing for Mr. Kidder's new painting isn't the light-hearted endeavor it once was. What does he really want from her? And how far will he go to get it?

In the tradition of Oates’s classic story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" A Fair Maiden is an unsettling, ambiguous tale of desire and control.


Innocently it began. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight.

On Ocean Avenue of Bayhead Harbor, New Jersey, in the thickening torpor of late-morning heat she'd been pushing the Engelhardts' ten-month-old baby in his stroller and clutching the hand of the Engelhardts' three-year-old daughter, Tricia, passing the succession of dazzling and dreamlike shops for which Ocean Avenue was known—the Bridal Shoppe, the Bootery, the Wicker House, Ralph Lauren, Lily Pulitzer, Crowne Jewels, the Place Setting, Pandora's Gift Box, Prim Rose Lane Lingerie & Nightwear—when, as she paused to gaze into the Prim Rose Lane window, there came an unexpected voice in her ear: "And what would you choose, if you had your wish?"

What registered was the quaint usage your wish. Your wish, like something in a fairy tale.

At sixteen she was too old to believe in fairy tales, but she did believe in what might be promised by a genial male voice urging your wish.


  • Virginia Blackburn, Daily Express, January 4, 2010
    5 Stars 
    "This is a marvellous novella ... with a sparing use of prose and not a word out of place. ... There is something haunting about this book: although it takes place during the brightly lit summer, it is one step away from being a dark, Gothic ghost story, albeit peopled with characters who are still very much alive."
  • Daniel Kraus, Booklist, April 1, 2009, pp. 4-5
    4 Stars 
  • Josh Cohen, Library Journal, May 15, 2009, p. 70
    4 Stars 
  • Kirkus Reviews, September 2009
    4 Stars 
    "Oates at her most restrained and hence best."
  • Jane Smiley, Washington Post Book World, January 4, 2010, p. C1
    4 Stars  
    "... Oates's ability to plot is like no other writer's. It's as if she has a direct channel to the reader's mind. ... Like Kafka, Oates simply states that something happened and depicts it in a concrete way and leaves the reader to suspend disbelief or not. The reward for suspending disbelief, of course, is that the next thing happens. Oates's second novel, published when she was 29, was titled "A Garden of Earthly Delights." Surely Oates knew that her world was and would continue to be as fascinating and detailed as a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, that we would be invited to stand before it, repelled, intrigued, amazed, seduced, and that we would have never seen anything like her world before, at least in art."
  • Lesley McDowell, Financial Times, December 23, 2009
    3 Stars 
  • Publishers Weekly, April 6, 2009, p. 27
    2 Stars 
  • John Crace, The Guardian (London), December 29, 2009, Features p. 13
    1 Star 


So slowly, slowly, she came up
And slowly she came nigh him.
And all she said when there she came,
Young man, I think you're dying.

—The Ballad of Barbara Allen