A Fair Maiden

A Fair Maiden

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Sixteen-year-old Katya Spivak is out for a walk on the gracious streets of Bayhead Harbor with her two summer babysitting charges when she’s approached by silver-haired, elegant Marcus Kidder. At first his interest in her seems harmless, even pleasant; like his name, a sort of gentle joke. His beautiful home, the children’s books he’s written, his classical music, the marvelous art in his study, his lavish presents to her — Mr. Kidder’s life couldn’t be more different from Katya’s drab working-class existence back home in South Jersey, or more enticing. But by degrees, almost imperceptibly, something changes, and posing for Mr. Kidder’s new painting isn’t the lighthearted endeavor it once was. What does he really want from her? And how far will he go to get it?

In the tradition of Oates’s classic story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" A Fair Maiden is an unsettling, ambiguous tale of desire and control.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547263359
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/18/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 165
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

JOYCE CAROL OATES is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the winner of the National Book Award. Among her major works are We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Falls.  


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

June 16, 1938

Place of Birth:

Lockport, New York


B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt


Innocently it began. When Katya Spivak was sixteen years old and Marcus Kidder was sixty-eight.

On Ocean Avenue of Bayhead Harbor, New Jersey, in the thickening torpor of late-morning heat she'd been pushing the Engelhardts' ten-month-old baby in his stroller and clutching the hand of the Engelhardts' three-year-old daughter, Tricia, passing the succession of dazzling and dreamlike shops for which Ocean Avenue was known — the Bridal Shoppe, the Bootery, the Wicker House, Ralph Lauren, Lily Pulitzer, Crowne Jewels, the Place Setting, Pandora's Gift Box, Prim Rose Lane Lingerie & Nightwear — when, as she paused to gaze into the Prim Rose Lane window, there came an unexpected voice in her ear: "And what would you choose, if you had your wish?"

What registered was the quaint usage your wish. Your wish, like something in a fairy tale.

At sixteen she was too old to believe in fairy tales, but she did believe in what might be promised by a genial male voice urging your wish.

With a smile she turned to him. In Bayhead Harbor, it was generally a good idea to lead with a smile. For possibly she knew this person, who'd been following her, keeping pace with her in the periphery of her vision, not passing her as other pedestrians did as she dawdled in front of store windows. In Bayhead Harbor, where everyone was so friendly, you naturally turned to even a stranger with a smile, and it was something of a disappointment to her to see that the stranger was an older, white-haired, gentlemanly man in a seersucker sport coat of the hue of ripe cantaloupe, white sport shirt and spotless white cord trousers, sporty white yachtsman's shoes. His eyes were a frank icy blue, crinkled at the corners from decades of smiling. Like a romantic figure in a Hollywood musical of bygone days — Fred Astaire? Gene Kelly? — he was even leaning on a carved ebony cane. "Well! I'm waiting, dear. What is your wish?"

In the Prim Rose Lane display window were such silky, intimate items of apparel, it seemed very strange that anyone who passed by could see them, and yet more unnerving that others might observe. Katya had been staring at a red lace camisole and matching red lace panties — silk, sexy, ridiculously expensive — worn by an elegantly thin blond mannequin with a bland beautiful face, but it was a white muslin Victorian-style nightgown with satin trim, on a girl mannequin with braids, to which she pointed. "That," Katya said.

"Ah! Impeccable taste. But you weren't looking at something else, were you? As I said, my dear, you have your choice."

My dear. Katya laughed uncertainly. No one spoke like this; on TV, in movies, maybe. My dear was meant to be quaint, and comical. You are so young, and I am so old. If I acknowledge this with a joke, will I come out on top?

He introduced himself as "Marcus Kidder, longtime Bayhead Harbor summer resident." This too sounded playful, as if Kidder had to be a joke. But his smile was so sincere, his manner so cordial, Katya saw no harm in volunteering her name, in abbreviated form: "I'm Katya. I'm a nanny." Pausing to suggest how silly, how demeaning the very term nanny was — she hated it. She was spending July and August until Labor Day working for a couple named Engelhardt, from Saddle River, New Jersey; the Engelhardts had just built a split-level house on New Liberty Street, on one of the harbor channels. "Maybe you know them? Max and Lorraine? They belong to the Bayhead Harbor Yacht Club."

"Doubtful that I do," Mr. Kidder said with a polite sneer. "If your employers are among the swarm of new people multiplying along the Jersey coast like mayflies."

Katya laughed. Dignified Mr. Kidder didn't like the Engelhardts any more than she did, and he didn't even know them.

Was he going to offer to buy her the nightgown? It seemed to have been forgotten, for which Katya was both grateful and mildly disappointed.

Though there was no doubt in her mind how she'd have reacted: Mr. Kidder, no thanks!

"Well, I have to leave now," Katya said, edging away. "Goodbye."

"And I, too. In this direction."

And so Mr. Kidder fell into step with Katya, walking with her on Ocean Avenue and making sparkly conversation with Tricia, a shy child, now a not-so-shy child, beguiled by this charming old white-haired man who, so far as a three-year-old could know, might be a grandfatherly friend or acquaintance of her parents'. Now in the succession of shop windows Katya was aware of two reflections — her own, and that of the tall, white-haired Mr. Kidder. You would think, An attractive pair! Katya smiled in the hope that passersby might imagine them together, maybe related. She was thinking how unusual it was to see a man of Mr. Kidder's age so tall, at least six feet two. And he carried himself with such dignity, his shoulders so straight. And his clothes — those were expensive clothes. And that striking white hair, soft-floating white, lifting in two wings from his high forehead. His skin was creased like a glove lightly crushed in the hand and was slightly recessed beneath the eyes, yet no more, Katya thought, than her own bruised-looking eyes when she had to push herself out of bed at an early hour after an insomniac night. Mr. Kidder's face was flushed with color, however, as if blood pulsed warmly just below the surface of his skin. He appeared to be of an age far beyond that of Katya's father, yet she couldn't believe that he was her grandfather's age: that terrifying limbo of free fall when specific ages become, to the young, beside the point. To the young there are no meaningful degrees of old, as there are no degrees of dead: either you are, or you are not.

Katya noticed that Mr. Kidder winced just slightly, walking with his cane. Yet he meant to be entertaining, telling her and Tricia that he had a "new, one-hundred-percent nonorganic plastic" right knee: "Have you ever heard of anything so amazing?" Katya said, "Sure we have. People can buy new knees — hips — hearts — lungs — if they have the money. Nothing needs to wear out, if you're rich. Tricia here will live to be one hundred and ten. Her parents expect it."

Katya laughed, and Mr. Kidder joined in. Exactly why, neither could have said.

"And what of you, dear Katya? How long do you expect to live?" "Me? Not long at all. Maybe until I'm ... forty. That's old enough." Carelessly Katya spoke, with a shiver of distaste. Her mother was over forty. Katya had no wish to resemble her.

"Forty is far too young, dear Katya!" Mr. Kidder protested. "Why do you say such a thing?"

He seemed genuinely surprised, disapproving. Katya felt the warmth of his disapproval, which was so very different from the chill disapproval of her family. Katya has a mouth on her! A mouth that wants slapping.

"Because I have bad habits."

"Bad habits! I can scarcely believe that." Mr. Kidder frowned, intrigued.

Why she sometimes spoke as she did, Katya didn't know. The mouth speaks what the ear is to hear.

Wanting to impress this man, maybe. Flattered by his interest in her, though she guessed she knew what it was, or might be; yet somehow she didn't think that was it. Older men often looked at her — Mr. Engelhardt often gazed at her with a small, distracted smile — but that was different somehow. Katya could not have said why, but she knew.

Now they were passing the large, lavish display window of Hilbreth Home Furnishings, and Mr. Kidder touched Katya's wrist lightly. "And in this window, Katya, what would you choose, for your dream home?"

Dream home. Another quaint usage that stirred Katya's pulse.

The first time she'd looked into Hilbreth's window, Katya had felt something sharp turn in her heart: a stab of dismay, resentment, dislike, anger against those who bought such expensive things for their expensive homes, and a childish envy. Yet now, at Mr. Kidder's playful urging, she gazed into the window with a small smile of anticipation. Such elegantly spare, angular furniture! Here there were no comfortably cushioned sofas or chairs, no bright chintz or floral patterns, scarcely any colors. Instead there was a preponderance of chrome; there was sleek black leather, low tables of sculpted wood, heavy slabs of tinted glass. Wheat-colored cushions in profusion, flat dull rugs, gigantic table lamps and skeletal floor lamps that didn't seem to require light bulbs ... In Vineland, New Jersey, which was Katya's home town, inland in the scrubby Pine Barrens, you would not encounter objects remotely like these, just soft, formless, graceless things, soiled and sagging sofas, worn vinyl chairs, Formica-topped tables.

"Anything from this window," Katya said, smiling so that her words wouldn't be misinterpreted as sarcastic, "I would need a special house for."

With an ambiguous smile of his own, Mr. Kidder said, "Maybe that could be arranged."

Katya shivered. Though Mr. Kidder was joking, of course, in the dazzling display window her reflection shimmered like a fairy figure in water.

Mr. Kidder had not inquired where Katya was taking the children, and Katya had not volunteered the information. Yet he expressed no surprise when Katya crossed Chapel Street, and now Post Road, when Katya pushed the stroller into Harbor Park. Here Tricia would feed the noisy waterfowl for twenty minutes or so and, if circumstances were right, mingle with other children in the park. Here were a half-dozen swans, many fat waddling Canada geese, platoons of smaller geese and mallards wriggling their feathered bottoms as they rushed forward to be fed. Tricia delighted in tossing bread bits to the waterfowl, which was, like their daily outings to the beach, a high point of her day. Katya had quickly come to dislike "feeding the geese," which seemed to provoke hunger more than satisfy it and made the birds contend with one another in a way that was crudely comical, too pointedly human. In Harbor Park much of the grass near the lake had been dirtied by the birds' myriad droppings; the lake was really no more than a large pond, shrunken in midsummer. Other nannies — most of them Hispanic, and older than Katya — brought small Caucasian children to the park to toss bits of bread at the clamorous birds; Katya had begun to recognize some of these women. As if she'd been trekking to Harbor Park for months, not less than two weeks.

Katya provided Tricia with bread for the birds and cautioned her not to get too close to them. As Tricia ran off excitedly, Mr. Kidder, looking after her, said, "You wish, don't you, that they would always stay that age ..." He spoke sentimentally, leaning on his cane.

Katya said, "No. I hated being so small, and I hated being so weak. It was scary — adults are so tall."

"And now we're not so tall to you?"

"Yes. Those of you who matter. And I'm still afraid of you."

"Afraid of me, dear Katya? Surely not."

Katya laughed. If this was a flirtation — and it felt like a flirtation — it was like no other flirtation in Katya's experience: with a man old enough to be her grandfather? (Though in fact very different from Katya's grandfather Spivak, stooped and tremulous from a lifetime of heavy drinking.) Meaning to shock him mildly, she said, "Know what I'd like right now? A cigarette."

"A cigarette! Not from me."

She'd begun smoking when she was twelve. One of Katya's bad habits.

In middle school she'd begun. If you were a girl and good-looking, older boys provided you with cigarettes as with other contraband: joints, uppers, beer. Katya would not have smoked in the Engelhardt children's presence, of course. She would not have dared to smoke in any circumstances in which her employers might observe her, or in which she might be reported back to her employers, for at their interview Mrs. Engelhardt had asked if she smoked and Katya had assured her no. And she didn't drink. ("Why, I should hope not"— Mrs. Engelhardt's prim response.)

In a wistful tone, Mr. Kidder was saying that he'd smoked for many years —"Deplorable, delicious habit, like all habits that endanger us." He smiled, as if he had more to say on this intriguing subject but had thought better of it. "But, dear Katya! It pains me to think of you smoking so young. Such an attractive girl, so healthy-seeming, with all your young life before you ..."

Katya shrugged. "That's why, maybe. That long way ahead."

Again Katya felt that she'd shocked this man, unsettled him. Their conversation, which appeared to be so wayward, casual, haphazard and spontaneous, like the children's cries as they tossed bread to the waterfowl, was more accurately following a deeper, more deliberate route, like an underground stream that, from the surface of the ground, you can't detect. All this while Katya was gently jiggling the stroller in which the baby was strapped, a mindless rhythmic action that made the baby smile moistly up at her, as if with love. Easy to mistake for love, Katya thought.

In Vineland, Katya frequently looked after small children, including her older sister's children, and she had come to the conclusion that she wanted no children of her own, not ever. But here in Bayhead Harbor, where the children of summer residents were so prized, and exuded an unexpected glamour, she had to reconsider.

"How old are you, my dear? If you don't mind my asking."

How old are you? Katya bit her lower lip with a sly smile but said instead, "How old do I look?"

In her T-shirt and denim cutoffs, with her smooth, tanned bare legs and arms, streaked-blond ponytail, and calm, steely gray eyes lifted provocatively to Mr. Kidder's face, Katya knew that she looked good. She was five feet five inches tall, slender but not thin, the calves of her legs taut, hard. Mr. Kidder's eyes moved over her with appreciation. "I assume you must be at least ... sixteen? To be trusted as a nanny? Though you look younger, in fact."

"Your granddaughter's age?"

Mr. Kidder's smile tightened. Curtly he said, "I don't have a granddaughter. That is, not a blood relation."

Katya felt the sting of a rebuke. The icy blue eyes, tight fixed smile. With the tip of his cane Mr. Kidder had been tracing invisible patterns in the ground at his feet.

"Kidder. Is that a real name, or just something you made up?"

"Kidder is certainly real. Marcus Kidder is painfully real. Let me give you my card, dear Katya." Out of his wallet Mr. Kidder drew a small white printed card, and on the back of the card he scribbled his unlisted — "magic" — number.

Marcus Cullen Kidder 17 Proxmire Street Bayhead Harbor, N.J.

"Come see me someday soon, Katya. Bring little Tricia and her delightful baby brother — if you wish. Tomorrow, tea-time?"

Katya slipped the little white card into a pocket. "Yes. Maybe." Coolly thinking, I don't think so.

Just then the waterfowl erupted. One of the children had tossed down a large chunk of bread, provoking a skirmish among the excited birds: flapping wings, agitated squawks, an angry confrontation between Canada geese and the more audacious of the mallards. "Tricia! Come here." Katya ran to lift the frightened little girl into her arms as she began to cry. "Sweetie, you aren't hurt. These are just noisy birds. They get hungry, and they get excited. We'll leave now." Katya felt a stab of guilt, that she'd been distracted by talking with Mr. Kidder: what if one of the larger birds had pecked at Tricia's bare legs — worse yet, her arms, her face ...

"Shoo! Shoo!" Mr. Kidder waved at the birds with his cane, scattering them and sending them back to the water. Like a comical yet gallant figure in a children's movie, a protector of the young. He meant to be amusing, to make the frightened children laugh, and their nannies. But Katya did not laugh.

"Tricia, come on. Let's go back to the house."

She'd had enough of the park, and she'd had enough of her white-haired gentleman friend. She'd had enough of Katya Spivak preening for his benefit and felt a wave of revulsion and dread, that she'd made a mistake in spending so much time with him and in having taken his card. As she hurried away with the Engelhardt children, Mr. Kidder called urgently after her, offering to summon a taxi for them or, if they walked over to his house —"Close by, a five-minute walk"— to drive them back himself. But Katya called over her shoulder, "No! No thanks! That isn't a good idea right now."

My darling, I thought then that I had lost you. Before I even knew you.


Excerpted from "A Fair Maiden"
by .
Copyright © 2009 The Ontario Review, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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A Fair Maiden 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
BALE on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed. Oates could do better, using the same characters and issues.
lauriebrown54 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A strange story by an author who has made thousands of fans by writing about strange things. Katya Spivek, 16, is from a low class family. She is spending the summer in a high class beach enclave, working as a live-in nanny for a rich couple. Her employers seem to regard Katya as a possession -albeit a disposable one. One day, window shopping on the way to taking the children to the park, she meets Marcus Kidder, a long time resident who considers himself far above the new people like Katya¿s employers in both money and class. Indeed, the entire town considers him to be such. He and Katya are at the opposite ends of the social spectrum, yet he picks her to befriend.Katya doesn¿t know what to make of him- stately gentleman? Old perve after a nubile teenager? He seems innocent enough, charming the three year old, having them to tea. But when he gives Katya an inappropriate gift (red silk underwear), she decides to never go back. Then her drunken mother calls, saying she owes someone bad $300, that she has no one to help her but Katya, and she must send her the money immediately or bad things will happen to her. Turned down by her employers, with no one else to turn to, Katya must borrow from Kidder, putting her in his debt. Already almost powerless by virtue of her social class, now she is completely powerless in this relationship. Things go completely out of her control, spiraling down into a series of dark events. A sense of foreboding fills the entire story. Katya is isolated, not just in the summer town where she knows no one, but also at home. Her father is long gone, her mother an alcoholic gambler, her relatives abusive and violent. Katya stands apart from them because of her love of books and her ambition of going to college. She fits no where. You know all along that bad things will happen to her, that there is no way out for her. She¿s young, female and poor.
starnarcosis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Three stars for story, 4 stars for writing. An odd tale.
triscuit on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Compelling but a bit icky, waiting for the nasty conclusion that seems inevitable. The young heroine is well drawn.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In "A Fair Maiden," Joyce Carol Oates returns to the theme for which she is perhaps best known: a very young woman is being preyed upon by an older man interested only in using her for his own, less than honorable, purposes. Female characters created by Oates live in a world in which they can never afford to let their guards slip because, just when they begin to feel comfortable about their surroundings, a man will step from the shadows to yank them back into the brutal nature of the real world they inhabit. Sixteen-year-old Katya Spivak is not exactly an innocent. Even before her father disappeared from her life, the Spivak family struggled to make it from one payday to the next. These days, her mother is much more interested in partying in Atlantic City than in holding a job. Katya may have come up the hard way but she resents those who look down on people like her and her family. Despite her feelings, she is spending the summer in an exclusive Jersey shore community as nanny to the children of a wealthy couple who seem determined to put as little cash in her pocket as possible. Marcus Kidder, 68, is pretty much the last of the Kidder family to spend time in the community but he, and his surname, are well known there. Kidder was born into wealth but built a minor reputation for himself over the years as an artist and writer/illustrator of several children's books. He begins a gentle courtship of Katya after spotting her on the street one morning with the two young children in her charge. Despite her suspicions about the old man, Katya is flattered enough by the attention of someone of his class and wealth that she visits his mansion for tea one afternoon. The horror of "A Fair Maiden" comes from the cunning approach Marcus Kidder uses to gain Katya's trust. Ever patient, never pushing too hard or too obviously, Kidder finally succeeds in getting Katya to pose for a portrait like the ones already hanging in the mansion. That, though, is just the beginning of what Kidder has in mind for his young friend and, almost despite herself, Katya at last finds herself posing nude. She tells herself, after all, that the cash Mr. Kidder pays her after each visit means that she is a professional model and this is what professional models do. But she is no match for a man like Marcus Kidder. As the book reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that Katya's understanding of how someone like her is seen by a man as wealthy and spoiled as Marcus Kidder is not far from the mark. Kidder is used to buying what he wants with no regard for the cost or the consequences. The question is what, exactly, does he want from Katya Spivak - and what it will cost both of them. "A Fair Maiden" comes in at only 165 pages but, because of its subject matter and the intensity of Oates' prose, it is not an easy book to read. It is, however, vintage Joyce Carol Oates and few readers will see the ending coming before Ms. Oates is ready to reveal it to them. Rated at: 4.5
TadAD on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a modern folk tale, not in the sense of a fairy story with magical creatures, but in the sense of a piece of legend, something that might start, ¿In a kingdom by the sea dwelt a Fair Maiden. And the King of this kingdom was agèd and yearning¿¿¿which, indeed, the legend Oates has written within the larger story does. Katya is a pretty, 16 year old, world-wise nanny in Bayhead Harbor, New Jersey. Marcus Kidder is an aging, wealthy member of a prominent family in that town who contrives to make her acquaintance. From this meeting a story about seduction of innocence emerges, yet one whose course manages to surprise and disconcert the reader. Like the best of this genre, it draws the reader into the insecurities and ambiguities of Katya¿s mind as she struggles against the trap she sees coming. The slowly-building disquiet fascinated me and this became a ¿single sitting¿ book.
mulberrymarsh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Joyce Carol Oates gives us another creepy yet riveting short novel centered on the irresistible urgings of the adolescent girl. Katya is a summer nanny in a seaside resort. Nannying is fine, but relatively boring, for the budding young woman so when mysterious, artistic and rich Mr. Kidder shows an increasingly compulsive interest in her she cannot resist his charms, nor his money. Katya comes to the shore from a broken white trash home life, replete with drug addled violent, ex-con, ¿cousin¿/boyfriend ¿ Roy. In her confused adolescence, being pulled by the admiration of men, in this case a creepy dichotomy between the hyped up red-neck Roy, and the suave mealy-mouthed Marcus Kidder, Katya seems to make all the wrong choices. Katya satisfies a need for each man, ostensibly sexual, but in the end it is each to their own violence. All the pieces fall into place bringing the story to a confluence of events with an unexpected and twisty ending. Katya will be scarred for life, even if her earlier home life hadn¿t already achieved this. The story leaves one with the lingering bad taste of a morality born of a - beware the motives and driving forces behind self-serving men! - mentality.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The substance of this story of a teenage girl physically and spiritually seduced by a sick, warped old man, hardly deserves the gift of Joyce Carol Oates’s magical, hypnotic writing skill.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Terrible, one of the worst books I've read.
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DoreenNovak More than 1 year ago
Nothing very heavy here. A nice, light summer read. Intriguing story.