Larry Bassett's Reviews > My Sister, My Love

My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates
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's review
Feb 13, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: fiction
Read from February 13 to 24, 2012

Let’s get The Spoiler out of the way: (view spoiler)

My Sister, My Love has this “Author’s Note/Disclaimer” at the front of the book:

Though My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike has its genesis in a notorious American “true crime mystery” of the late twentieth century, it is a work of the imagination solely and lays no claim to representing actual persons, places, or historical events. This includes all characters in the Rampike family, their legal counsel, and their friends. Nor is its depiction of “Tabloid Hell” intended to be a literal depiction of media response to the crime.

This evidently is all the legal cover Joyce Carol Oates needs. This fig leaf is hardly opaque since it is so obvious that this book is based on the JonBenet Ramsey killing in December 1996. I am not sure which is more embarrassing: that Joyce Carol Oates wrote it or that I read it. My only excuse is that this is yet another book I obtained in the hectic closing month of GR BookSwap (Need I remind you that each BookSwap book is a book that someone didn’t want?) and that my knowledge at that time was only that it is a book written by the well known author Ms. Oates.

It is a tabloid story that will not go away quietly. A case in point:

ABC News: Oct. 4, 2010 - Investigators hoping to solve the 1996 killing of 6-year-old pageant queen JonBenet Ramsey have launched a fresh round of interviews with witnesses that could provide the clue they've been missing all these years.

Among the potential witnesses police have contacted is the little girl’s brother, Burke Ramsey. Now 23, he was 9 when his sister's body was found in the family's Colorado basement, beaten and strangled.

The narrator of the book is the older brother of the murdered girl. The aka in the book of the brother is Skyler Rampike; the aka of the murdered girl is Bliss Rampike. The six year old beauty queen becomes a six year old figure skater. The nine year old brother remains a nine year old brother. (Although he is nineteen when he is reflecting back and writing this book.) They do not represent “actual persons, or places, or historical events.”

Satire of the upper middle class? JCO makes fun of just about everyone in this novel, including the reader!

…some of you, a reliable fraction of the female readership, will admire Bix anyway, and will imagine, as women who are drawn to such men invariably imagine, that such men would never hurt them but love them dearly.

The NY Times reviewer says of this 2008 offering from JCO:

the novel's jerky, high-strung, inept and self-conscious narration, peppered with footnotes, footnoted footnotes, interjections and long digressions, is disjointed, exhausting and unnecessary. Source:

JCO is panned by the NYT! I guess that can happen occasionally when you write so many books. But the Times is also a fan of JCO and has an online reference page devoted to her. Look to this link to find news about Joyce Carol Oates, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times:

The book gets its currency from its apparent connection with the facts of the JonBenet Ramsey case. But there is a tug of war here. One devil tells us that what we are reading has some relationship to the facts about people, places and events. The other devil says that we really don’t know very much about the case beyond what we got from the media coverage so the matching of a few “tabloid highlights” may be the only tenuous link to accuracy with most of the book being surmise, assumption, conjecture, circumstance, guesswork and pure imagination. But, still, what pulls on you is that what you are reading might be true and there is a human fascination with that possibility. We want a front row seat.

But remember that when Daddy promised to take Bliss and Skyler to a movie, the movie is titled “Benji Goes Ballistic!” I checked and there is no such movie. Ever. I was crushed. Could this all be made up?

Says the protagonist of the book:

Reader, you are shaking your head in disbelief. You, like Aristotle, react with aesthetic displeasure to such an unlikely plot. And yet, all that I am disclosing here is true.

Is this book in bad taste? No more so than the non-stop media cover this story received. And the full coverage on went on and on.

Reluctantly, mournfully, yet bravely Betsey Rampike spoke. It is not easy to bare your soul on national TV. Still more the souls of others. Tenderly the camera dwelled upon Betsey’s rosy flushed face.

Then again, Publishers Weekly says “Oates's psychological acuity, however, ranks this novel as one of the best from a dark observer of our lives and times.” What am I to think? Well, JCO also satirizes Tabloid Hell, but how do you satirize that which is already satire?

Occasionally I think, “This is a book that I might like to read again someday.” This is not one of those books, however. It would be better in a Reader’s Digest condensed version. It is certainly too long as it is presented. This is a misstep by an accomplished author. Do writers ever admit their mistakes?

I read the entire book, all 550+ pages. It was interesting enough to keep me reading. But I would suggest that you spend your time reading something else. Two stars.
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Reading Progress

02/13/2012 page 1
0.0% " Joyce Carol Oates writing fictionalized "true crime"? Fascinating. And I just finished an Ann Rule book!"
02/15/2012 page 77
13.0% "This JCO novel was panned by the reviewer in the NYT when it came out in 2008: "... jerky ... inept narration ... long digressions ... disjointed...exhausting..." What have I gotten into?"
02/20/2012 page 151
26.0% "This book is not funny enough to be a comedy, not sad enough to be a tragedy but interesting enough to keep on reading."
02/21/2012 page 189
33.0% "The suspense builds: "And was Bliss Rampike crowned Little Miss Princess 1996, and was Daddy present to see his bestest-best little gal wildly applauded by an arena of admiring strangers, and was there a celebration afterwards at Wilmington, Delaware's 'most prestigious/historic' downtown hotel, and did Daddy come home with his little family the next morning? Read on.""
02/24/2012 page 463
80.0% "A matched set: "We can search for 'why' together, Skyler! You can come with me to Africa. You can be a 'man of God' in Africa, Skyler. Even if you don't believe.""

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Larry Bassett For some reason I thought that taking a sensational tabloid murder and making a fiction story out of it was new for Joyce Carol Oates.

Well, here I am reading her biography Invisible Writer when I see that her mid-60s short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? was based on the gruesome story of a serial killer of teenage girls in Tucson called "The Pied Piper of Tucson."

You can even read the short story online at . Yikes! What to think?

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