By Joyce Carol Oates
New York: Knopf, 2022
From one of America’s most renowned storytellers—the best-selling author of Blonde—comes a novel about love and deceit, and lust and redemption, against a backdrop of shocking murders in the affluent suburbs of Detroit.
In the waning days of the turbulent 1970s, in the wake of unsolved child-killings that have shocked Detroit, the lives of several residents are drawn together with tragic consequences.
There is Hannah, wife of a prominent local businessman, who has begun an affair with a darkly charismatic stranger whose identity remains elusive; Mikey, a canny street hustler who finds himself on a chilling mission to rectify injustice; and the serial killer known as Babysitter, an enigmatic and terrifying figure at the periphery of elite Detroit. As Babysitter continues his rampage of abductions and killings, these individuals intersect with one another in startling and unexpected ways.
Suspenseful, brilliantly orchestrated, and engrossing, Babysitter is a starkly narrated exploration of the riskiness of pursuing alternate lives, calling into question how far we are willing to go to protect those whom we cherish most. In its scathing indictment of corrupt politics, unexamined racism, and the enabling of sexual predation in America, Babysitter is a thrilling work of contemporary fiction.
- She Asks Herself Why
- Do Not Disturb
- I Am
- When We Died
- Only This Once
- The Calendar
- First Touch
- Empty Ballroom
- Before Babysitter
- “Give Mommy a Kiss”
- Beautiful Clothes
- You Like This
- The Adored One
- When I Died
- [Body of Missing…]
- “Children Not Loved & Not Deserved”
- Sexual Rival(s)
- “Stupid C__t”
- Asks Herself: Why?
- Never Look Back to See Where a Smile Has Gone
- Predator, Prey
- Death Sentence
- No Tears!
- “No Help”
- The Tip
- Beautiful Boy
- Never Say No
- The Intruder
- Mistletoe 1977
- “I Am So Sorry”
- Dry Heat, September
- Kiss Mommy
- The Lover: The Call
- The Lover: The Assignation
- A Door Closes. a Door Opens.
- Fairy Tale
- Home Invasion
- A Loaded Gun
- Lone Lake
- The Stone
- The Lover. the Stalker.
- The Emissary
- Delivery Boy
- Zink Jewelers Estate & Loan
- “For Sale”
- “Bless Me, Father”
- Do Not Disturb
from “Zink Jewelers Estate & Loan”
[The appraiser] informs Hannah that her pearls are indeed natural South Sea pearls, not well aged, with a clasp of small diamonds.
“Seven thousand, cash.”
Seven thousand! Hannah is crushed. Does this mean that the pearl necklace is only worth approximately fourteen thousand dollars?
Hannah protests: “But—if those are real pearls—”
“You have neglected them, dear. You are a shallow person, perhaps. Probably the pearls have been forgotten in a drawer, you haven’t worn them in years. Then, something happens in your life, something that calls into question your life, and so you turn back for help, you ‘reach’ for—something that is lost to you, you’d taken for granted. Your grandmother gave you the pearls? Well, then—you see—your grandmother is lost to you. The resale value of pearls isn’t great, unlike diamonds. Do you have diamonds you’d like sell? Necklace, earrings? Rings?” Sharp-eyed, the appraiser is looking frankly at Hannah’s fingers.
Hannah is overwhelmed by the appraiser’s words, that seem to her both kindly and chiding, intimate and accusing. She had thought the man was her friend…
No time to go elsewhere for a second appraisal. In her agitated state Hannah dreads driving in the city. And she doesn’t dare bring jewelry to an appraiser in the Far Hills vicinity, the news might get back to someone who knows her.
Impossible to give up her rings, Hannah thinks. Wes would notice.
(Would Wes notice? She could sell the engagement ring, which is a sizable diamond of several carats; she could replace it, in this very store perhaps, with a zircon or even a rhinestone ring, and Wes would never notice.)
“My dear, the offer is seven thousand, cash. Take it or leave it.”
Several white rats on the worktable are regarding Hannah with impertinent interest. She feels a ticklish sensation—a warm-skinned rat nips at her ankle with its sharp teeth, as if teasing. “Oh!”—Hannah kicks at it, shocked.
The appraiser laughs, but cautions: “My dear, don’t provoke them: They may appear tame, and they are very charming, but they are wild creatures, and they can bite.”
Hannah examines her ankle: There is a tiny run in the sheer nylon stocking but her skin doesn’t appear to be broken.
“Seven thousand, dear. But in two minutes, it will be six thousand.”
Hannah means to say vehemently No thank you. Instead, she hears herself say Yes.
“Yes?—to seven thousand, cash?”
It is unnaturally warm in the cave-like interior, though neither the appraiser nor the woman with the harlequin glasses seems to notice. As if somewhere close by there is a beating heart, the heat of a furnace…
“Very sensible, dear. For one who has neglected a treasure.”
Hannah rubs ruefully at her ankle, which has begun to itch. Alert and avid the pink-eyed white rats regard her as if they fear retaliation from her.
Even as the corpulent appraiser turns in his swivel chair to open the wall safe, to count out cash for Hannah, she hears herself protest—“Wait: no.”
She has changed her mind, she tells him. This is all a mistake.
Suddenly desperate to get the necklace back as she’d been desperate to run after Y.K. and Conor, seize Conor’s hand and reclaim him, at the entrance to the men’s restroom in the park.
The appraiser isn’t so incensed as Y.K. had been but he isn’t amused.
But he is a gentleman: “Are you sure, dear? If you walk out of here with the necklace, then change your mind and return, the price will have dropped by fifteen hundred dollars.”
He is laughing at her, Hannah thinks. She all but snatches the necklace from the appraiser’s hands, slips it into her handbag. She has lost or forgotten the little cloth bag, left on the cashier’s counter.
“Let me out, please. Unlock the door, please. Let me out.”
Hannah makes her way with some difficulty to the front of the cluttered store. Barely she can see daylight through the barred front window overlooking Gratiot Avenue.
Frantically, Hannah pushes at the door. It is locked, unmovable, and then, with a click! unlocked, presumably by the woman in the harlequin glasses.
Ah, out on the street!—wide windswept Gratiot Avenue where the air has turned cold, hostile, with a mineral smell. A faint white sun glowers like a barely throbbing heart.
Things don’t happen, it depends upon who comes along.
There is only one question: Of what am I capable?
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2022
… Oates paints an unflinching portrait of 1970s upper-middle-class America, touching on issues of racism, classism, and institutional abuse while exploring society’s tendency to value women solely in relation to the role they fill—be it wife, mother, or sexual object. A searing work of slow-burning domestic noir.
Valerie Taylor, BookTrib. August 22, 2022
Babysitter is disturbing, not for the faint of heart. It’s a stunning portrayal of multiple forms of brutality: child abuse and abduction, police misconduct, clergy abuse, and of course, rape. By deftly weaving in the hot and controversial issues of elitism, racism, gun safety, mental health, immigration, and infidelity, Oates challenges us to ask ourselves: “Of what am I capable?”
Sarah Rachel Egelman, Bookreporter, August 23, 2022
BABYSITTER is a disturbing exploration of the power of prestige, wealth and whiteness and the powerlessness of women, children and Black men in the U.S. Oates skews and lambasts ideas about women’s roles and expectations. The killer here is noted for his “caring,” even “maternal,” disposal of the bodies, and Hannah hands off much of her own motherly work to her Filipina housekeeper and nanny, who turns out to be the only character who can really see what’s happening with her.
Kimberly Long, Financial Times, September 2, 2022
Despite the horror of the story, Oates’ skill with narrative and her mastery of prose create a compelling study in the most ugly aspects of human desire. The brutal descriptions of violence against women and children can be unsettling and, arguably, unnecessary. Guessing the identity of the titular Babysitter does not require much in the way of investigative skills, but this is not the thrust of the narrative. The true horror of the novel comes less from the perverted child-killer than the torture endured in the futile search for connection.
Oyinkan Braithwaite, New York Times Book Review, September 4, 2022, page 15
As unlikable as Hannah is, I was terrified for her, and for myself. A third of the way through the novel, it was clear that there could be no happy ending, and Oates barely ties up the loose ends. If it was her intention to leave us with more questions than answers, the effect is an acute sense of unease. “Babysitter” is a ghost story without the ghosts, but with tension thick enough to inspire several heart attacks. Read with care.
Kate Saunders, The Times, September 10, 2022
Oates deals in familiar “tropes” (she’s too classy for mere clichés), but cleverly uses the reader’s prejudices and assumptions to confound our expectations …. Oates’s greatest power lies in her genius for old-fashioned storytelling. Babysitter is a novel that pulls the reader along at a rattling pace, throwing out all kinds of thrilling twists, and with an ending that is as surprising as it is bleak.
Eric Karl Anderson, Lonesome Reader, September 10, 2022
As always in Oates’ fiction, notions of justice don’t naturally align with the law as the ideologies governing these characters’ lives are the truly ruling factor. It’s hypnotic how this novel captures the resulting psychological chaos of living in a world of predators and prey. The tension of whether this horrific serial killer will be stopped is depicted alongside a woman whose reality is broken as she’s trapped in a perpetual nightmare.
Clement Yong, The Straits Times, December 3, 2022
Babysitter is yet another example of Oates’ daring to tread where other writers might avoid. Hannah, an essentially uninteresting character, manages to come alive, even if the choices that she makes at different junctures make sympathy for her difficult. This is an in-depth look at the randomness of human evil, and at its effects on the mind of an ordinary woman.
Publishers Weekly, June 13, 2022, page 52
Exquisite prose compensates only in part for characters with grating personalities who come across as mere shadows as they each careen along a collision course to disaster.
Pricilla Gilman, Boston Globe, August 18, 2022
There is much to admire about “Babysitter.” Its pages are lit up by Oates’s searing rage about patriarchy’s toxic stain, the church’s enabling of and eager participation in the sexual predation of children, racism’s pernicious taint. Its characters are simultaneously repulsive and strangely sympathetic — both Hannah and Mikey do terrible things and yet we understand how insecurity, alienation, and a history of abuse make them vulnerable. Some sections are almost unbearably creepy; Oates’s ability to create a sickening sense of horror is as keen as ever. And yet, as a whole, “Babysitter” is less enthralling or frightening than it might have been.
Jonathan Clarke, City Journal, September 23, 2022
It is possible to describe the mechanical plot of Babysitter, which certainly does not lack for incident and color and which hurries along with Oates’s customary brio. It is also possible to discuss the novel’s broad themes, which will be familiar to Oates readers. The difficulty is in accepting Babysitter as a unity—as driven by some teleological purpose, however vague.
Image: “Pearls, pearls, pearls….” by Mauro Cateb.
thanks, Randy! this is an amazing fecundity.
Oh, you’re quite welcome, Joyce! But you know the word I’m seeking is not “fecundity” but “prolificacy.”