Review: 48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister by Joyce Carol Oates

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Marguerite, a beautiful woman, has disappeared from her small town in Upstate New York. But is foul play involved? Or did she merely take an opportunity to get away for fun, or finally make the decision to leave behind her claustrophobic life of limited opportunities?

Her younger sister Gigi wonders if the flimsy silk Dior dress, so casually abandoned on the floor, is a clue to Marguerite’s having seemingly vanished. The police examine the footprints made by her Ferragamo boots leaving the house, ending abruptly, and puzzle over how that can help lead to her. Gigi, not so pretty as her sister, slowly reveals her hatred for the perfect, much-loved, Marguerite.

Bit by bit, like ripping the petals off a flower blossom, revelations about both sisters are uncovered. And subtly, but with the unbearable suspense at which Joyce Carol Oates excels, clues mount up to bring to light the fate of the missing beauty.


I have been reading Joyce Carol Oates books off and on for about 20 years. Her writing has certain themes, particularly trauma toward women and the disappearances or deaths of loved ones destroying people. She has been writing variations of this theme since 1964 with over 150 published books to her credit. She is now eighty-four, and it seems as if her production is still as steady as it has always been. The first book I read was The Tattooed Girl, when it was new in 2003, and it blew me away. The story, about a girl with a tattoo on her face who becomes an assistant to an aging author, even though her goal is to destroy him, was so incredible that I read several of her novels back to back. She has a certain style to her writing and a certain gothic creepiness that nobody else can duplicate. Since 2003, I have tried to keep up with some of her novels and collections here and there, but there really are just so many and there is so much to read in the world that sometimes her newest book slip through the cracks.

We can tell that 48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister is a Joyce Carol Oates book just by the title. We already know that there has been some foul play to a young girl and that the narrator, the sister, is trying to cope with her disappearance. The thing is we do not know what direction Oates is going to take this idea. We learn quickly that the woman who disappeared is Marguerite, a beautiful woman who disappeared one morning and was not found. The narrator of the story, is Georgene, her younger, not as pretty or popular sister, works at the post office, lives in her childhood room, and is jealous and angry toward Marguerite and how their lives are completely different. When Marguerite disappears, these feelings are really amplified, making Georgene deal with these feelings as well as the strangers who are now trying to butt into her very private life. Two greatest things about Joyce Carol Oates is her character studies and her creepiness. In this case, the character Georgene is placed under a microscope and every thought, feeling, and action really explains her bitterness toward life. As far as creepiness, Oates writes many of her stories in a way that there feels like there is an undercurrent of evil in every character and in every character’s actions. 

This novel is written in 48 clues that adds to the story, but not all of the clues are physical things. Some are reactions, feelings, and behaviors. The mystery is how this all adds up. Clues in her novels never fit perfectly together, and it is up to the reader to decide what really happened to Marguerite. We are given the tools but we have to build the conclusions ourselves. This makes for a novel that is equal parts fascinating and disturbing. For as much as people like true crime podcasts and documentaries, it is a wonder why Joyce Carol Oates is not having a resurgence. Much of her fiction is built in a way where the reader is to draw their own conclusions. 48 Clues Into the Disappearance of My Sister is one of those mysteries that can really lead to a debate with a group of friends over what really happened to Marguerite, because the clues point to several possibilities. This is the type of fiction Oates has been writing for a long time, and this makes stories just as interesting now as they were decades ago.

I received this as an ARC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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