Oates sets up a provocative scenario in this unusual novel, probing the nature of seduction and the motives of a man desperate at the end of his long life. From a wealthy, respected family, Marcus Kidder has a reputation as a gentleman of quality. The author/illustrator of a number of children’s books, Kidder is elegant and sophisticated.
All the more surprising then when he approaches Katya Spivak, sixteen, who is employed as a nanny for the two small children of a couple vacationing at the exclusive New Jersey shore of Bayhead Harbor. Flattered by Mr. Kidder’s attention - she always calls him “Mr. Kidder,” never “Marcus” - Katya is unsure of the elderly man’s motives, but her fears are assuaged by his genteel manner and thoughtfulness.
Foolish, she knows, to entertain a visit to Mr. Kidder’s luxurious home, but Katya is riddled with curiosity. Child of a dysfunctional family, Katya is out of her depth in this unexpected situation. The drumbeat of self-doubt erodes her resistance, a combination of lessons learned from her mother (“If you want him to love you, do not contradict a man.”) and low self-esteem (“Desperately she wanted to be liked, even by the people she resented.”), a perfect storm of conflicting emotions that leaves Katya particularly vulnerable.
And what is it that Marcus Kidder wants from this nubile young girl who has yet to determine the boundaries of her female power? In a contrast of excess and want, Katya is handicapped by her awe of Kidder’s extravagant lifestyle, his easy movement in a world she can only imagine, where delicate glass flowers mimic nature but will never die, where only the finest quality is accepted in the artist’s home. To be sure, “the curious thrill of trespass kept her captive.”
On this unequal terrain, a bargain of sorts is reached: Katya will pose for Marcus on her half-days off, subject to the constant barrage of his seduction, the promise of reward, the idea that they are “soul mates born at awkward times.” Make no mistake: this is a seduction. But Kidder’s motives are more complex than first appear, a man at the end of his life entertaining a fantasy that requires a youthful, vibrant partner.
Oates does a masterful job of describing Katya’s conflict, the attraction of Kidder’s world and the desperation of her own, a quiet estate where for a time she is pampered, revered. Way over her head in this sophisticated landscape, Katya is pawn to Kidder’s game, driven by confusing emotions and a desire to be precious to another human being.
The true conflict - and discomfort for the reader - is in the bargaining. Outmatched, Katya balks, trapped between curiosity and revulsion, manipulated and seduced until an impulsive act of violence clarifies her circumstances. Not an easy story; Oates prods the reader to react, the loss of innocence never a pretty thing to observe.