May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

by Joyce Carol Oates

Part biography, part voyeuristic fiction, Oates’s alluring Blonde reconstructs what she refers to as the “snarled, dreamlike, riddlesome” 36 years of Marilyn Monroe’s life in a series of fast-paced, convincingly imagined scenarios: the lonely childhood in foster homes; the transformation of a shy, stammering brunette named Norma Jeane Baker into Hollywood’s quintessential blonde bombshell; and finally the sad, downward spiral into drugs and scandal before her death in 1962.

Blonde thrums with sexuality as Marilyn looks for love in all the wrong places, including three disastrous marriages and several notorious affairs. By giving us a Marilyn’s-eye view, even a fictional one, Oates allows us to feel enormous empathy with the star over the course of this painstaking and hefty (738-page) experiment. It’s another bold departure in a versatile career that has taken Oates from Gothic romances to boxing books, poetry and mysteries. And it’s a mesmerizing read. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.50)

Bottom Line: Oates channels Marilyn—and it works

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