Oates is one of the great writers of our age. Her works do tend to be dark however.
This is no exception.
(From Library Journal) ... fairly straightforward narrative ... Constructed on a more intimate scale ..., it is a stark, well-drawn portrait of the title character told in "scenes from the life" style, from Marya's early days of poverty, her life as an abandoned child raised by an aunt and uncle, through hard-won college success and an academic career. Marya's development and her innermost fears and insecurities are revealed in a very personal, almost autobiographical manner.
Marya's life is described in chapters dealing with a traumatic childhood, religious observations, college experiences, a career in academia, and relationships. Throughout it all, the overwhelming feeling is one of loneliness and a life lived searching for a sense of belonging. The chapter dealing with thoughts on religion reminded me of Flannery O'Connor. The abrupt ending, although disconcerting, is probably intentional. I think this book is brilliantly written, and perhaps gives us more of an insight into JCO as a person than most of her fiction.