Book review: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

I chose this book because I overheard the man from the bookshop advising it to someone else. As I am always on the look out for a new read, I thought “why not ?” and picked up the book and left. I had never read a novel by Joyce Carol Oates before even though she is a famous author, and I was not disappointed by this one.

About the author
Joyce Carol Oates is an American author who has published over 50 novels. Some of her most famous include The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Black Water and What I Lived for. She has won many awards, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Blonde.

She was born and grew up in New York, was interested in reading from a very young age, and started writing at the age of 14. At the age of 19, she won the “college short story contest”, already showing her talent at writing and a precursor to her following success as an author.

About the book
When I picked up the book, I knew next to nothing about Marilyn Monroe. The image I had of her was the one we see all over the place: successful blonde actress, the sex symbol who represented Hollywood and stardom. “Happy Birthday Mr. President”, the breathy singing and an apparent history of drug use was all I knew. I presumed that she had had a successful though short career, and a great life as one of America’s most famous women. Little did I know how wrong I was.

The novel is based loosely upon her life, therefore it cannot be taken as biography. Nonetheless, I believe that the story Oates builds is strongly influenced by the real events that took place in Monroe’s life, and can regarded as being mostly true. The book is very long (over 700 pages), so it does take some persistence to read it, but it is incredibly captivating.

We follow Monroe through various stages of her life: as a young girl when she is still Norma Jeane Baker, as a teenager, as a young woman… Then we follow her as she becomes Marilyn Monroe, through her first film, her mounting success and finally her demise. From the start, it is clear that her life was extremely unhappy, and that she was doomed to have a difficult life.

A schizophrenic mother who ends up in a psychiatric hospital, abandoned and left to grow up in an orphanage at a very young age, married off at 16 by her foster mother who is afraid of Norma Jeane’s beauty and the way men are attracted to her… Norma Jeane is sweet and extremely innocent, believing the best of everyone and having no idea of men’s intentions towards her. She is constantly trying her hardest to please, to be educated, to not be a dumb blonde and to take part in conversations and life as best she can.

But her naivety also means that she is exploited and taken advantage of, that people use her without her realising it which results in an even more miserable life for her. The studio that employs her as an actress underpays her massively, even though her films are bringing in tons of money for the company. She is made to do sexual favours by men in positions of authority, who take advantage of her naivety. She is made out to be a whore, and a woman who sleeps around, when in fact she is mostly being abused by these men who see her as nothing more than a dumb blonde.

She is desperate to fall in love, to have a perfect life with the perfect husband and a child, but she is so naive that it prevents her from understanding exactly what it is the men in her life want from her and how to build a relationship. She is so desperate to succeed and to be a good actress that she nearly kills herself trying. She is a perfectionist, obsessed with work, yet it destroys her as well as the people around her. She is not Marilyn Monroe but Norma Jeane Baker, and this is something that Oates manages to portray extremely well. She describes Norma Jeane as “searching” for Marilyn before going on set, which is sometimes what causes her to be so late for filming, as if Marilyn Monroe is foreign to Norma Jeane.

She tries her best to educate herself, to read and to be knowledgeable, but none of this is taken seriously by the people around her. Whenever she tries to make a literary reference, or suggest an interpretation of the films she is acting in, she is laughed at by her colleagues and her peers. They only see her as the dumb sexy blonde, when in fact she is far from it.

It hurts to see how the smiling, sexy blonde we see in posters everywhere, was in fact far from happy and far from assuming her image as a sex symbol. We imagine how she was forced into wearing whatever gorgeous dress she is wearing, how her hair was died into the peroxide blonde that it is, how she in make up for hours before finally taking the picture we see all the time, and it feels sad.

The novel is extraordinarily well written, as we plunge into the life of Norma Jean Baker and start to feel so sorry for her and for all the bad luck she had. We feel outraged at how she is manipulated, and are disgusted by all the people who take advantage to her. The book can be hard going sometimes as it is predominantly sad, which means it can be good to sometimes give it a rest. Nonetheless, it provides a very interesting insight into Monroe’s life, even if it is not a biography.

I really recommend this book to anyone who is interested in knowing more about Monroe, anyone who is a fan of hers, and anyone looking for a good read.

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