by Joyce Carol Oates is a magical realist
novel about the Bellefleur family, who live in a mansion in a mythical version of Upstate New York, on the banks of the fictional Lake Noir. The novel is told in a series of sometimes interwoven, sometimes disparate chapters, which examine the ancestors of the Bellefleur family and their twentieth-century contemporaries, who live together on their estate on the lake. The book is full of curses, strange circumstances, prophecies, ghosts, and much more; the characters mostly suffer, in the tradition of magical realist and gothic novels, at the hands of otherworldly forces they cannot control.
The book is broken into eighty short chapters, each with a focus on different Bellefleur family members. Some of the early chapters reveal the strange behaviors of the earliest Bellefleur ancestors, including one Bellefleur, Jedediah, who wandered through the mountains seeking a manifestation of God, and another, great-great-grandfather Raphael Bellefleur, who asked that after his death his skin be turned into a drum that could be passed down to future generations.
Other chapters focus more on the contemporary Bellefleurs, who live on the lake sometime in the twentieth century. Leah Bellefleur is of particular interest in the novel. She married her cousin Gideon, and they live on the lakeside estate. Leah struggles with a mystical power that she can never entirely harness, and her husband, Gideon, is both cruel and unfaithful to her. A known deviant, Gideon eventually gets a local girl pregnant, leading Leah to crave another baby of her own. She eventually gets pregnant, giving birth to a baby girl who has the body of a baby boy sticking out of her stomach like a growth. Leah's grandmother Della, who oversees the birth, cuts the baby boy off her granddaughter's body, saying she'd had enough of boys. In that way, Baby Germaine is born.
Germaine becomes Leah's guide, and Leah begins an obsessive crusade to rebuild her family's empire, beginning with freeing an uncle accused of mass murder who has been locked away in prison for decades. Of course, once Uncle Jean Pierre is released, he is witnessed killing a slew of people. Other tragedies strike, including the death of Gideon's illegitimate child by a vulture; the drowning of Vernon Bellefleur, Gideon's brother, by the locals; the rape of Yolande; and the strange disappearance of Raphael, a nephew who hears voices calling to him from the nearby pond.
Besides the cast of strange and colorful human characters, there are a number of mythical animal creatures as well. The mansion is filled with powerful rats and psychic cats and dogs; the family lore includes a black bear that married into the Bellefleur clan many decades before. There are also dwarves and other fairytale-like characters, which add an element of surrealism to the novel.
Meanwhile, Leah and Gideon are stilled locked in a battle over Germaine. Gideon, still openly sleeping with women in town, is sick of fighting with his wife. The novel ends in a burst of flames and the end of the Bellefleur family, when Gideon flies his biplane dead center into the Bellefleur mansion, causing it to burst into flames.
The Bellefleur curse eventually reaches every branch of the family, whether by fiery death or suffering of an unimaginable variety. Scattered between stories of the family's demise are strange singular tales from the family archives, and other stories set in the mythical Lake Noir region.
Joyce Carol Oates has written fifty-eight novels in her lifelong career as a writer. She has also authored plays, novellas, and short stories. She lives in Lockport, New York and teaches at Princeton, where she is the Professor Emerita of Creative Writing. She has won a National Book Award, an O. Henry Award, and a National Humanities Medal, among many other awards. She has also had five books become finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. She wrote Bellefleur in 1980.