PEOPLE ARE DRAWN to the Niagara Falls for many reasons, but this awesome spectacle holds a peculiar magnetism for those at an emotional extreme (honeymooners and the suicidal are regular visitors). Ariah and Gilbert, the newlyweds in Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel, manage to fall into both groups. When the new Mrs Erskine wakes in a hotel bridal suite the morning after her wedding, she is already a widow - her husband of less than twenty-four hours having sneaked off at dawn to hurl himself into the raging waters. And so begins a tragic postwar American love story spanning three decades and several generations of a family blighted by its uneasy enchantment with the siren call of the Falls. Not that the love story is Ariah's and Gilbert's. They hated one another, trapped as they were - by family and other pressures - in a union of convenience. Yet, when Gilbert makes his dramatic exit, his abandoned bride is so shocked that, as if in a trance, she keeps a weeklong vigil on the banks of the Niagara River until the body is found. In so doing, she is mistaken for a devastated young widow, transfixed with grief for the lost love of her life. In fact, she is just about to meet him. Dirk Burnaby, wealthy lawyer and prominent figure in the local community, takes it upon himself to chaperone this tragic woman . . . and, almost literally, falls under her spell. Not long after the first husband's bloated and putrefying corpse floats into view, Ariah marries again - and, this time, for love.
This isn't the first story by Oates to pivot on an unseemly drowning - her novella Black Water was a reworking of the 1969 Chappaquiddick scandal, when Senator Edward Kennedy survived a car plunge into a river that killed his companion, Mary Jo Kopechne. But then Oates has written so