{Book Expert} A beach read that’s anything but sunny.

A book about a pedophile-child relationship its not what you’d normally refer to as a “beach read,” but you might want to reconsider. According to FOF Linda Wolfe, Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger, is, like the best beach reads, impossible to put down. Unlike many beach reads, however, it’s also impossible to forget. Here’s why….

(Plus, enter to win a copy of Tiger, Tiger when you answer this question in the comments below: What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?)

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One of the most compelling books I’ve read recently is Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tigernot to be confused with the controversial Tiger Mother or the precocious Tiger’s Wife (not to mention the Broadway show Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – what is it with tiger titles lately?)  Fragoso’s book is a memoir, the astonishing story of how, at the age of seven, she was seduced by a man more than forty years her senior, a once-jailed pedophile with whom she maintained a secret, intimate relationship until she was twenty-two, and he, at the age of sixty-six, committed suicide.

Perhaps in the previous sentence I should have said “why” she was seduced and “why” she remained in the relationship instead of “how,” for this book, explicit, insightful, and elegantly written, has much to tell us about what makes certain children easy prey for pedophiles.

In Fragoso’s case, her earliest childhood years were wrenching.  Raised by an explosive, alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother, Fragoso grew up fearing her father, having to mother her mother, and longing for what all children want: attention, encouragement, praise.  She meets Peter Curran, the man who will give her these things, while bathing at a neighborhood pool with her mother. Watching him splash and play with two little boys she assumes are his sons, she paddles up to him and asks, “Can I play with you?”

Curran obliges, includes her in his games with the boys – who turn out to be the sons of a woman in whose house he rents a room  – and several days later invites her and her mother to visit the family and the house.

It’s a place that’s vibrant with life: in addition to the boys and their mother, the house is home to a large furry dog, a tankful of iguanas, a cage full of rabbits, and even a small baby alligator. Both Margaux and her mother are enchanted, and become regular after-school visitors.  Curran calls Margaux “princess” and “angel,” tells her how talented she is when she writes little stories or  puts on little playlets, and patiently plays whatever games she proposes.  He also introduces games of his own choosing: “an enhanced version of Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Mad Scientist” and “Tickle Torture Time.”  Then one day he takes Margaux down to the basement to check on the health of Fiver, a sick rabbit, and asks her to look at his penis.

In a shattering scene, Fragoso describes her eight-year-old reaction to Curran’s request.

“I climbed into the cart with Fiver and said, ‘Look, Peter!  I’m a rabbit!’

“I started to drink from the water bottle, tasting the sweet metal and the sweet, warm water.  I picked up [Fiver’s food], offered it again to him, and when he refused it, I ate it myself….Peter came and picked me up gently, placed me on my feet; but I instantly sank again, to my hands and knees, to crawl on the ground like a baby, to feel the cold hard floor beneath my hands.

“‘I’m a baby now, not a rabbit.  No, wait.  I’m a baby rabbit!  Chase me!’”

Curran ignores her agitation and, dropping his pants, exposes his genitals.   “The whole contraption looked like a bunless hot dog with two partly deflated balloons attached,” Fragoso writes.  But, afraid to offend this man who has become the affectionate  male figure her life has so lacked, she tries to conceal her disgust and say something nice about the disturbing sight. “It kind of reminds me of….an ice cream cone,” she says.

I’ll spare you what happens next.  Suffice it to say that Curran makes her his sexual toy.  But after years of being abused by him, when Fragoso becomes a teenager, she turns the tables on him.  By then, aging and in ill-health, he’s become dependent on her, and knowing this, she torments him, mocking him for his weakening legs and toothless mouth and maintaining the relationship even as she begins dating boys.

Throughout this disturbing tale, Lolita from Lolita’s own viewpoint,  the author is unflinchingly honest, aware of her own complicity in the abusive relationship.  It makes her book absolutely mesmerizing. Fragoso’s insights into pedophiles and the damage they inflict on the children they entrap are profound.  But just as importantly – arguably even more importantly — she is a profoundly talented writer.  This is a book you won’t be able to put down, and once you’ve finished it, won’t be able to forget.

Enter to win a copy of Tiger, Tiger when you answer this question in the comments below: What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

(See all our past winners. See official rules. One winner is chosen at random from all those who ask a question. Contest closes July 7, 2011.)

{Book Expert} Linda Wolfe: Review of A Widow’s Story

In A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s describes the painful year following her husband’s sudden death. FOF book reviewer Linda Wolfe, a widow herself, praises Oates’s warmth, but questions her sincerity.

A Widow’s Story, Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about her first year of widowhood after the death of her husband Ray Smith, a scholar and editor to whom she’d been married for almost fifty years, is bound to call to mind Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.  Since hardly a book lover over fifty hasn’t read the Didion work–and you must be a book lover if you’re reading my FOF reviews–I’ll get the comparisons out of the way right upfront. Where Didion was concise, precise and poetic, Oates is verbose, expansive, and prosaic, inclined to give us everything and the kitchen sink, from reporting her terrors about entering her empty house and running out of death certificates, to reprinting emails the complete emails she exchanged with friends. Nevertheless, this is a warmer work than Didion’s, more intimate, more straightforward, and truer to the actual day-by-day, minute-by-minute thoughts and experiences of the newly-widowed woman. (I’ve been there myself, so I know the territory.)

Every widow will recognize herself in Oates’s thoughts and experience. Take her anguish about being left alone:  “When you are not alone, you are shielded,” she writes, “from the stark implacable unspeakable indescribable terror of aloneness. You are shielded from the knowledge of your own insignificance….When you are loved you are blind to your own worth; or, you are indifferent to such thoughts.”

Or take her bouts of what Didion termed “magical thinking”:  remembering the times she traveled without Ray, Oates tries telling herself “with childish logic that if Ray were alive but not with me, that absence would be identical with this absence.”

Then there’s the  bursting into tears at odd moments. The inability to sleep at night. The depression that makes even simple chores seem impossible. The rage at having to secure documents just in order to access one’s money. The horrifying sensation that not just a beloved partner has been lost, but that one’s own self has been lost as well. Above all, the recurrent thoughts of suicide.

Many married women think to themselves–or even say aloud, as a friend of mine said to me just the other day–that if their partners were to die, they’d kill themselves. Oates always imagined she’d choose that course. “Frequently in the past,” she writes, “I had consoled myself that, should something happen to Ray, I would not want to outlive him. I could not bear to outlive him!  I would take a fatal dose of sleeping pills.”

Soon after Ray’s death, she does get out all the leftover sleeping pills and tranquilizers she’s been prescribed over the years, but she doesn’t take any of them. Their presence is reassuring, but she continues to have suicidal thoughts. To the widow, she says, “Suicide promises A good night’s sleep–with no interruptions. And no next day.”

Wrestling with her demons, Oates sets herself the modest goal of getting through each day.  And at book’s end, she declares,“Of the widow’s countless death-duties, there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think, I kept myself alive.”

Oates doesn’t tell us that besides keeping herself alive, within a year of her husband’s death she found a new partner, became engaged, and in a few months married him. I hate to sound cynical, but I suspect Oates is saving that story for her next book. Too bad. Leaving out this information, which is common knowledge in the literary world, makes this otherwise memorable book seem unfortunately disingenuous.

Linda Wolfe is a renowned journalist, essayist and novelist who happened to move to a new apartment right next door to the Faboverfifty offices. Now she writes brilliant book reviews just for us. Read more about Linda.