''The Widow-Bride of the Falls,'' Ariah is called. A pale, odd-looking woman, a 29-year-old virgin whose new husband threw himself into the waters after their first, wretched honeymoon night. She keeps a vigil until the body's found, becoming a ghostly Niagara legend -- and mysteriously besots playboy lawyer Dirk Burnaby. She knows he'll leave her but for now doesn't care.
With prose as light and eerie as the flutter of piano keys, Joyce Carol Oates' new novel is a dazzlingly ambitious tale spanning three decades. It's a myth about what happens when a figure of doom marries the local sun god -- as well as an environmental allegory, comparing the Burnaby marriage to the roiling waters themselves (including the eroding ground beneath the surface). Most crucially, it's a whopper of a character study, with Ariah ever unraveling like an ominous mystery.
The Falls begins simply as a 1950s romance, Oates nailing the first blush of love so perfectly you want to excuse yourself from some scenes. Consider Ariah's embrace of bouncy, gleeful sex: ''They were naked as eels. So many toes (twenty!) beneath the covers at the foot of the bed.'' Here the novelist uses her dreamy stream of consciousness for good. Think of the sun-spotted nature of the violent seduction in her 1966 story ''Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?'' loosed on a gentler topic: mutual adoration.
Of course, no Oates novel stays frothy. But the fall here is not predicated on any sudden burst of violence, as is her wont. Instead, the Burnabys' silky world is crushed largely by Ariah herself. A preacher's daughter who believes herself -- and thus her second marriage -- to be damned by God (and Niagara high society), she becomes a smug, insecure woman who rejects and resists reflexively. Ariah's self-fulfilling spiral makes for a more subtle catalyst than the assaults in 1996's We Were the Mulvaneys and 2003's Rape: A Love Story, and it allows for a wonderfully layered novel. Rather than a family reacting to a specific, sickening event, here is a family sickened from within, as Ariah busies herself by rigging nasty verbal traps to catch her husband and children in the act of not loving her.
While Oates repeatedly dips into the Falls as a symbol of marriage and relationships, she also uses the decay of the Niagara area -- turned toxic from chemical and plastics plants -- to mirror the rot of Ariah's family. Dirk's decision to take on his old-money cronies in the first, doomed Love Canal case blares like a grime-covered warning to the Burnabys: No poison stays buried. In the augury is, perhaps, a bit of hope.
Bumpy, dense, topical, and deeply affecting, The Falls is that rare family saga with both a kind heart and an ugly gut. Credit the fascinating woman at its core. Oates, a writer who has conceived some of the most intriguing, disturbing female characters of the past half century, has forged in Ariah a creature of steel -- nicked, twisted, but somehow lovely.