It's a short book, actually a novella to be precise, so it reads quickly but it stays with you for a long time after you've read it. There are a lot of books out there that deal with rape, but I've never come across one that deals with it the way Oates does. Even in her earlier novel 'We Were the Mulvaneys,' a slightly more accessible title for those who want to get into her oeuvre, she deals with a similar subject in a wildly different way. The only thing the two have in common is that they explore the nature of love in traumatic circumstances, as many of her books do. (As I write this, I'm aware that she has a memoir in shops right now that was published after the tragic death of her husband, but I haven't read it yet and I'm not sure I want to. Fake misery I can do, her real pain might be a touch intense for me.)
Rape: A Love Story begins with an act of brutality described in painful detail. Teena Maguire and her young daughter Bethal are walking home through a park after a party when they are attacked by a group of young men who've spent the day drinking and smoking crystal meth. Bethal escapes them with a dislocated arm and manages to squeeze into a tight spot where they can't reach her, but her mother isn't so lucky. She is gang-raped, beaten and left for dead, all within earshot of her terrified daughter. When the men finally leave, Bethal runs for help and manages to flag down a passing police officer, John Dromoor. When he finds Teena, the damage done is so bad he's convinced she's dead.
So far, so awful, right? It gets worse. Teena does pull through, arrests are made and the case is taken to court, but the expensive lawyers that the men's families have hired paint Teena as an irresponsible mother, dragging her child from a party late at night through a possibly dangerous area, while also painting the men involved as merely misguided. They get suspended sentences, and almost straight away launch a campaign of intimidation against the frightened Maguires. Teena loses all will to live and drowns her sorrows in alcohol and isolation, and Bethal is left to cope on her own, with classmates who don't know what to say to her and relatives of the men who attacked her making threats in her school.
So, you been driven to drink yet? Things then start to get better, thank goodness.
Bethal calls Dromoor after a two of the attackers drive by her house shouting for Teena. Dromoor, who fulfills the love part of this story, is sickened by how easily the attackers can get away with this, and out of compassion for Teena and Bethal, he plans to take out the attackers in the most subtle fashion he can manage. One man he encounters in a bar and he manipulates the man into making threats, at which point he is able to shoot the man in self-defense in front of credible witnesses. One by one, he takes them out.
Oates veers off at one point to show how the family of two of the rapists are doing. Quite rightly she pegs that far from being amoral psychopaths, the two young men just don't care enough about Teena or Bethal to feel bad about what they did while under the influence of drugs. What they do feel bad about is how their father had to sell his prized boat to pay for the lawyer, and how their mother ostensibly forgives them but won't let them near their young female relatives. Perhaps the anti-rape campaigns should focus on this approach, given that the average rapist couldn't care less about the welfare of their victim but likely do care about how their families would react. When the two men go missing, their father is devastated. He assumes they escaped prosecution across the border, leaving him to pick up the pieces.
Teena slowly begins to put her life back together and Bethal, knowing full well that Dromoor was behind the disappearances, has her faith in humanity restored. It'd be a happy ending except that someone had to commit murder for it.
A film was in production from 2010 onwards, starring Heather Graham as Teena and Abigail Breslin as Bethal, as well as Samuel L Jackson as Dromoor. They also replaced the word 'rape' in the title with 'vengeance' due to the afor-mentioned knee-jerk reaction. I've been looking for details about it everywhere, it's undergone two major role casting changes and seems mired in development hell, but according to the internet it's in theatres in the USA. Here's hoping it makes its way here soon, if it's as good as the book it's worth seeing.