Joyce Carol Oates's novels remind me of the joke about New England weather: If you don't like it, wait five minutes. Prolific doesn't begin to do the National Book Award-winner justice. She's got one of the best work ethics in the business. At the local library, her novels and short-story collections take up four full shelves, from "American Appetites" to "Zombie." (And that's not counting the collected essays.)
I'd always classified Oates among authors whose work was destined to inspire admiration rather than love. Then I read her 1996 novel, "We Were the Mulvaneys," and fell hard for the intricate exploration of how a crisis can reverberate along hidden fault lines in a genuinely happy family.
In her new novel, Missing Mom, the New York native returns to the fictional setting of the "Mulvaneys," Mt. Ephraim, N.Y. "Mom" is set in the present day, rather than the 1970s and '80s, but some of the same characters and place names crop up, and superficial similarities abound.
Both narrators work for a daily newspaper, for example, and both plots are set in motion by a violent crime. Both victims come equipped with silly nicknames ("Button" Mulvaney and "Feather" Eaton), and both are former cheerleaders who like to bake bread.
The parallels ultimately prove to be a mistake, though, since "Mulvaneys" is the superior work, and every similarity just serves to remind the reader of that fact.
This is not to say that "Missing Mom" doesn't have its pleasures. But the plot and characters are so relentlessly conventional, it's almost as if Oates decided to try her hand at a chick-lit novel. This is certainly her right, but the result feels a bit like hiring chef Ming Tsai to grill hot dogs.
The difference is apparent right from the first lines. "We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?" manages to be half-plaintive, half-defiant, and gives the sense of embarking on a lost history. Not bad for six words. "Missing Mom," instead, kicks off with: "Last time you see someone and you don't know it will be the last time." In this case, it's Mother's Day 2004, the last time Nikki Eaton sees her mother alive.
Nikki is the self-described black sheep of the family. She has a penchant for funky hairdos, sexy thrift-store outfits, and an older, married man. (Clare, her bossy older sister, is the "good girl," a self-righteous mother of two.)
Nikki celebrates Mother's Day (which her mom insists on cooking) by fighting with her about said married man.
Two days later, the 31-year-old journalist finds her mother's body in the garage, the victim of a meth-addict in search of ready cash. "Missing Mom" chronicles Nikki's first year without her mother. In her grief, she moves into her family's ranch house, and all but disappears from her job and her relationship.
(Will she stay with the married businessman, or will she come to appreciate the caring detective investigating her mom's murder? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count.)
More interesting is Nikki's posthumous relationship with her mom, Gwen, a homebody who was devoted to making others happy (perhaps because she'd decided that happiness was impossible for herself).
"Always set out more desserts than you think your guests can eat, Mom used to say. So that they leave a few behind, and can feel good about their diets."
In one of the funnier set pieces, Gwen ends up supplying the baked goods for her own funeral, as guests bring cookies and foil-wrapped breads unearthed from their freezers. As Nikki learns to bake her mom's recipes and adopts some of her "lame duck" friends, she starts uncovering secrets about Gwen's sad childhood and her lonely marriage to a cold man.
Nikki's late father seems cut from the same cloth as perfectionist Clare (who, sadly, remains a caricature). "Clare was so frugal, she saved old Post-its. Dad, who'd saved 'lightly used' tissues and paper napkins, would have been pleased."
Although, even Clare is startled when, packing up their parents' possessions, they find the old calendars and empty rolls of tape hoarded by her dad. Oates sprinkles such detailed characterization throughout the novel, and it helps to somewhat overcome the no-surprises plot.
"Missing Mom" is ultimately a combination of the precisely realized and the banal. For example, when Nikki prescribes vacuuming as a solace for grief, it feels genuine. When she announces, "Grief is like one of those roller towels in public lavatories. Shared with too many people, it gets soiled and worn-out," it sounds like a line from "Forrest Gump."
Loyal fans will probably ultimately enjoy this novel, and for the rest of us, well, we won't have long to wait.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.