During the early part of her career, Oates was viewed as a woman writer on the periphery of the women’s movement. In the 1980’s, her writing began to focus more frequently on stories and characters with particularly feminine or feminist concerns. Solstice, like Marya: A Life which followed it, exemplifies this development, portraying a relationship between two women in a small Pennsylvania town.
Monica Jensen, recently divorced and attempting to start a new life in the wake of her failed marriage, has relocated from New York City and accepted a teaching assignment at the local boys’ academy. Sheila Trask, older and more worldly, is a successful artist, the widow of a famous sculptor; she lives alone and detached from the community in a fine old country house. The novel, which is told from Monica’s viewpoint, is divided into four sections that reflect four stages in her development.
The first, titled, “The Scar,” details Monica’s adjustment to country life, her first casual encounters with Sheila, and her growing attraction to the other’s lively personality. Sheila is the stronger of the two, and Monica, in emotional recovery, is timid, hesitant, and flattered to accept Sheila’s friendly attention.
As the two become acquainted, their friendship becomes the foundation of their social lives. “The Mirror-Ghoul,” the second section, shows the process by which the women come to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to provide necessary support, to reflect each other. On Sheila’s urging, they begin frequenting local taverns and bowling alleys, pretending to be lively country divorcees; this activity delights Sheila but leads to adventures and moral considerations that discomfort and frighten Monica. Eventually, Sheila becomes demanding and burdensome to Monica; Monica withdraws. Sheila’s work suffers, and she drinks and takes pills; by Christmas, mere months after their first meeting, their confrontations crescendo and plummet into silence. Sheila disappears; Monica assumes she has gone globe-trotting to Paris or Morocco.
Part 3 is “Holiday,” a period of separation. Monica returns to her family in Indiana for the New Year holiday and mourns the passing of her golden adolescence. Returning from vacation, she is keenly aware of Sheila’s absence. She begins dating an attorney but without feeling any passion; she becomes more involved with her work and students; she misses Sheila but tries not to think of her.
Then Sheila returns, and with her the relationship, the obsessive behavior, and the manipulation. Monica can identify the effect that Sheila is having on her, but she cannot stop it. She allows herself to become indispensable to Sheila’s life, including the running of the house and the arrangement of an upcoming exhibition. She neglects her own work at school, then her health as well, until she is relieved of her teaching responsibilities. Her friendship with Sheila is now consuming and debilitating: The women lose the ability to console or support each other, move in and out of illness, and behave with veiled malice or open spite. In the end, Monica’s health deteriorates so dramatically that Sheila finds her helpless and rushes her to the hospital, where she possibly may die.
The title of this last section, “Labyrinth,” is taken from a painting Sheila is doing of the mythical Ariadne and her arduous journey out of the maze of the Minotaur’s palace. The novel is itself Monica’s account of her similar journey, and the narrative twists and turns with labyrinthine complexity. It is also, as the title suggests, about a sort of solstice—the passing of two distinct and very different bodies in a close, rare, and distorting conjunction.
Solstice is episodic; it creates portraits of Monica, Sheila, and their interaction through occasional moments, diverse comments, and unconnected impressions. It is more straightforward and naturalistic than much of Oates’s writing, yet its apparent simplicity...
(The entire section is 1,638 words.)