(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Marya: A Life is clearly Marya Knauer's story, and Oates creates in it a convincing view of the protective coldness that children of alcoholics or the victims of child abuse often adopt. The novel's structure allows Oates to emphasize significant people who have shaped Marya's life: Lee, a cousin who bullies and abuses her; Mr. Schwilk, the junior high school teacher whom students harass out of the classroom; Father Shearing, the priest who helps Marya understand faith; Emmett, Marya's first boyfriend who will never rise out of Shaheen Falls and would like to keep Marya there with him; Imogene, her college friend and rival; Maximilian Fein, the brilliant, married professor who becomes her lover; Gregory, her colleague with whom she must compete for a tenured position; Eric, her lover who in death teaches her to relinquish her protective shell; Vera, the aunt who has raised her and who directs her at the end of the novel toward her mother. While the fictional characters are individualized in the context of Marya's life, they also represent significant teachers, clergy, lovers or friends in the reader's own life.

(The entire section is 185 words.)