Official Synopsis from Goodreads:
In her most ambitious work to date, Joyce Carol Oates boldly reimagines the inner, poetic, and spiritual life of Norma Jeane Baker — the child, the woman, the fated celebrity and idolized blonde the world came to know as Marilyn Monroe. In a voice startlingly intimate and rich, Norma Jeane tells her own story of an emblematic American artist — intensely conflicted and driven — who had lost her way. A powerful portrait of Hollywood’s myth and an extraordinary woman’s heartbreaking reality, “Blonde” is a sweeping epic that pays tribute to the elusive magic and devastation behind the creation of the great twentieth-century American star.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Setting: Los Angeles 1932-1962
My Copy Came From: I purchased a used paperback from a local library book sale.
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Content Warnings for Blonde: graphic sex, language, sexual situations, rape, drug use, mental illness, abortion, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, child abuse, abandonment, anti-Semitism, addiction
Review: Thorough, long, intense, and heartbreaking. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates broke my heart and made me look at Norma Jeane Baker (Marilyn Monroe) in a different way. Telling the story of Norma Jeane and her rise to stardom and her fame as Marilyn Monroe, Blonde is a tough book to read. You’ll notice I put a content warning for this title, as there are really some very difficult, graphic scenes to read here, and this is not a book that everyone will be able to stomach. But for those who push through and read it, you’ll come away with a different take on Norma Jeane and Marilyn Monroe.
Though she might have been sad-faced just before, truly Norma Jeane turned on like a lightbulb in the presence of important visitors. Her sweet face, a perfect moon face, and her eager blue eyes, and her quick shy smile and manners that made you think of a more subdued Shirley Temple – “Just such an angel!”
There was the pleading in those eyes: Love me! Already, I love you.
Joyce Carol Oates notes in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the novel, that this book is “a radically distilled “life” in the form of fiction”, and that “biographical facts regarding Marilyn Monroe should be sought not in Blonde, which is not intended as a historic document.” So, because of that, it’s hard to know what exactly is truth here and what exactly is artistic license. Sadly, I feel all, or most of it, must be somewhat the truth, or if not the exact truth, is very close to the truth or has the general idea of truth. And that is what makes this book so heartbreaking.
I told myself My new life! My new life has begun! Today it began! Telling myself It’s only now beginning, I am twenty-one years old & I am MARILYN MONROE
Starting out when Norma Jeane was just a young child, Blonde details her upbringing, and her relationship with her mother, who was a paranoid schizophrenic. These early scenes are some of the most difficult to read, as Norma Jeane is subjected to all sorts of abuse. Some abuse is hinted at, others are more obvious, and still more abuse is revealed later. While these early scenes seemed to go on forever (for example, she is still just a young girl at least 100 pages into the book), the focus on these childhood years is necessary to get a full picture of the adult Norma Jeane, how her upbringing impacted her, and how she so easily slipped into addiction.
I was not a tramp or a slut. Yet there was the wish to perceive me that way. For I could not be sold any other way I guess. And I saw that I must be sold. For then I would be desired, and I would be loved.
As Norma Jeane grows up, we see her relationships with various men, and also get a glimpse into her marriages, from her first marriage before she was famous, to her public marriages to Joe DiMaggio (known as “the Ex-Athlete” here), and also Arthur Miller (here indicated as “the Playwright”). It was hard to follow some of these relationships, as many of the characters are noted just by nicknames or letters. For example there are characters who are only named as: V, W, N, Rin Tin Tin, Rumplestiltskin, the Dark Prince, the Sharpshooter, the Gemini, O, C, or the Brunette. This got to be very confusing, and I had trouble following who was who, and which character did what.
Norma Jeane even thinks of herself as Marilyn as “the Blond Actress”, as we learn that Norma Jeane’s greatest role was that of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn was not Norma Jeane, it was just all a role that she was constantly forced to portray. We see Norma Jeane balk against playing this role again and again, and we see how portraying this blonde bombshell affected her mental state. It is quite fascinating, and I was totally spellbound by the last half of this book.
The actress’s skin wasn’t right, her makeup would have to be removed gently with cold cream and reapplied. Sometimes the hair wasn’t right. (But what could possibly be wrong with hair?) Dampened and reset and again dried with a hand blower. As Norma Jeane sat motionless before the mirror, eyes lowered in prayer.
Please come. Please!
Don’t abandon me. Please!
The very one she’d scorned. This “Marilyn” she despised.
Blonde is very, very long (my copy was 738 pages), and it took me about two months to read this. The beginning was tough for me to get through. It was hard to read about so much abuse, and how Norma Jeane still retained her hope, kindness, and belief in people.
I rated this book 4 stars on Goodreads, and while I loved the book, it was too long and too graphic, which kept it from being a 5 star read. I also dropped a star because of the fact that I couldn’t quite follow who all of the characters were. For example, I thought the Dark Prince was a reference to Clark Gable, but then some scene would happen, and then I’d think the author was referring to Marlon Brando, and then it would refer to Clark Gable again, and I just couldn’t keep the characters straight.
why Some Like It Hot a masterpiece? why Monroe’s masterpiece? why Monroe’s most commercial movie? why did they love her? why when her life was in shreds like clawed silk? why when her life was in pieces like smashed glass? why when her insides had bled out? why when her insides had been scooped out? why when she carried poison in her womb? why when her head was ringing with pain? her mouth stinging with red ants? why when everybody on the set of the film hated her? resented her? feared her? why when she was drowning before their eyes?
Even with all of the graphicness and difficult scenes, I still would totally recommend this to anyone who has an interest in Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe, or strong characters. Just be aware that this book is not for the faint of heart and it will have you looking up pictures of Marilyn Monroe nonstop as the book chronicles her rise and her descent.
Bottom Line: A difficult read, but powerful and heartbreaking.
LINKS ***the Amazon link is an affiliate link which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***
12 thoughts on “Book Review: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates”
Having read several “disturbing” things about MM, i’ll Admit I am still a fan. There is something magnetic about her. Perhaps her humanity. I think I want to read this book, now that i’ve read your review; it sounds fascinating despite the un-lovely parts. This was a great review! My favorite movie is “The River Of No Return” with a Robert Mitchem.
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She was so magnetic! This book really touches on that and her allure and how she came alive when the camera was on her. It is such a fascinating read – one that I keep thinking about! I haven’t seen The River of No Return yet – I’ll have to add it to my list! 🙂
This doesn’t sound like a book for me. I read a novel JCO wrote called zombie in which she gets in the head of Jeffrey Dahmer. I think that’s why she adds the author note: she can’t know what anyone was thinking, but she writes in first person. I also know JCO has gotten herself into hot water on Twitter for saying tone deaf and occasionally racist things. 😬
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Yikes! That Jeffrey Dahmer book sounds creepy!
She’s very outspoken on Twitter – I haven’t heard about any racist stuff however, but I know she’s always posting political stuff (she’s very anti-T***). I think I follow her on Twitter, but try not to pay attention to all the political talk.
I saw her speak once when she was doing publicity for her book The Sacrifice (which I purchased and got autographed, but haven’t read yet), and hearing her speak about writing was really wonderful. Her novels are usually hit or miss with me. I haven’t read all that many: Mudwoman (super creepy), We Were the Mulvaneys (didn’t care for), and this one, Blonde, which I did love but would hesitate to recommend to those who can’t handle anything graphic as it is just so tough to read.
She’s written so much; I don’t know how she does it. Her novels don’t even stuck to a genre, like Stephen King’s. Here’s always horror, detective, sci fi, etc. I’m not sure how to categorize some of her novels, which means she’s not relying on tropes so much.
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She’s truly a remarkable writer! She puts so much in to her writing. And you can tell the books are hers, but they are all so different.
I read this years ago and loved it, although as you say, it was very disturbing and frustrating to not know exactly what was fictionalized and what wasn’t without a lot of additional research. Fantastic review!!
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Thanks! Yeah, it was frustrating – I never knew what I could believe and what I couldn’t. But it sure was fascinating and just imagine all the research she put in to writing this book!
Wow, I hadn’t heard of this one! As someone else said upstream, JCO is so prolific and hard to pin down sometimes – it’s easy to miss some of her work. I’ve never been a massive MM fan but the idea of an actor creating her as a sort of character is really interesting.
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I also haven’t been the greatest MM fan either, but this book has given me a whole new appreciation for her and what she went through. But because JCO isn’t writing this as fact, it’s hard to tell what really happened and what is artistic license. I’m always intrigued by JCO’s work, it’s always so different!
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