Monica Jensen, emerging from marriage at age twenty-nine, wants to establish her own life and discover her own tastes: She teaches in a private school, enjoys the labor of fixing up a house, and likes her privacy and sense of control. The novel’s action traces her friendship with Sheila Trask, a fairly well-known painter and accomplished horsewoman. Sheila’s energy, disorder, and passion add life to Monica’s existence but force her to question her ideal of control and self-sufficiency.
Several recent novels by Joyce Carol Oates imitate (and thus enrich and question) popular genres of women’s fiction. SOLSTICE uses the contemporary formula of a woman finding herself after divorce, but it refuses to supply conventional satisfactions. The myth of the labyrinth, the subject of Sheila Trask’s paintings, provides the book’s dominant image, and the plot is structured by twists, repetitions, and increasing narrative disorientation. As Monica Jensen turns inward, the terrible monster at the center of the labyrinth may be glimpsed as vacancy (has Monica a “self” to find?), sexual desire for a woman (which Monica cannot face), or the ideology that love may be won by nurture and emotional support. Or, is the monster Sheila Trask herself--the immature, self-centered, tormented artist who is a common romantic stereotype?
SOLSTICE is a relatively short book, which begins with a clear narrative, interesting characters, and entertaining observations on the contemporary scene--and, like most of Oates’s work, grows increasingly provocative and disturbing as it forces readers to look beneath the surface.
Bender, Eileen T. Artist in Residence: The Phenomenon of Joyce Carol Oates. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. The useful commentary on Solstice ties the work to feminist traditions. Contains a primary and a selected secondary bibliography.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Critical essays on Oates’s work.
Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years. New York: Twayne, 1992. Comments throughout on the feminist outlook and gives a perceptive discussion of Solstice. The selected bibliography lists Oates’s novels between 1987 and 1990, as well as poetry, plays, stories, and edited works. Includes a bibliography of secondary works and a chronology.
Daly, Brenda. Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. A critical look at the female characters of Oates’s novels.
Dean, Sharon L. “Oates’s Solstice.” The Explicator 47 (Winter, 1989): 54-56. A brief but valuable examination of the solstice and Ariadne imagery.
Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Too early for Solstice, but a helpful introduction to Oates’s work.
Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998. A thorough biography, including a series of pictures provided by Oates.
Lercangée, Francine. Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986. Lists newspaper and magazine reviews of Solstice. Contains a preface and annotations by Bruce F. Michelson.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates. Edited by Lee Milazzo. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. Published reviews and interviews from newspapers and magazines, 1969 to 1989. Contains only a brief reference to Solstice, but the volume provides a good survey of Oates’s views on her reading and writing.
Oates, Joyce Carol, comp. First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft. New York: Persea Books, 1983. A compilation of essays by twentieth century writers on writing, including an essay by Oates herself.
Form and Content
Oates’s relatively short sixteenth novel explores in depth the obsessive female friendship of two professional women. It occupies the time frame of an academic year, from September to May. Monica and Sheila are basically out of harmony with the comfortable, smug world of exurbanite...
(The entire section is 2,021 words.)