The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates tells the tale of Joshua Seigl, a wealthy eccentric living in Carmel Heights, an upscale neighborhood in Rochester, New York, who, after meeting a young woman named Alma Busch, ends up drawn into a violent world in which sex, love, and anti-semitism are intertwined.
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The book begins with Seigl at thirty-eight years old. As a young man he published a book based on his parent's experiences in the Holocaust that went on to be regarded as canon. When Seigl grows up, however, he is plagued by health problems. A professor with several projects in the works including the translation of various classics, he discovers he has a degenerative condition that hampers his productivity. Because of this, he decides to hire an assistant.
Enter Alma Busch, a lower-class, practically illiterate women covered in tattoos whose origins throughout the book she refuses to reveal. She appears to lack all the qualities Seigl might look for in a writer's assistant, but the two encounter each other all the same. It is also revealed that she has been sexually active since an early age, and was raised by a physically and mentally abusive family in rural Pennsylvania.
Busch is broke when she arrives at Carmel Heights. While sitting at a cafe, for instance, towards the beginning of the novel, she proceeds to eat leftover food off the plates that diners have left behind. At that cafe she meets an abusive waiter named Dmitri who takes her home after work. Due to his predatory nature he is able to pounce upon Busch's insecurities immediately, and quickly draws her into a cycle of sexual abuse and manipulation in which, amongst other things, he asks her to sleep with his friends. Though she is illiterate, Busch begins working at a bookstore, which is where she encounters Seigl, a gentle intellectual.
At first Seigl offers her a job as his housekeeper. In his interviews with the mostly intellectually oriented young men who applied to be his writing assistant, he wasn't able to find anyone he felt overly compelled to hire. In time he begins to develop an odd affinity for Busch, and, despite protests from family and friends, begins to idealize her in ways that prove absurd. He offers to pay for her education, for instance, even though she doesn't care for the idea. Throughout the book the two entertain a tenuous dynamic in which he idealizes her character and she reviles his.
Soon enough, Seigl's older sister comes to take care of Seigl when he falls ill. Although she was born Mary Beth, she adopted the Hebrew named Jetimah, embracing the Jewish heritage her brother seemed unconcerned with. At the time the reader believes that Seigl is Jewish, anyway (although later on we discover that isn't the fact.) So it is perhaps more honest to say that Jetimah had decided to exploit a culture that wasn't hers to claim.
At first, things are okay between the siblings until Jetimah encounters Busch. She grows angry with Seigl when she discovers the assistant, barley literate, is aiding her brother with his writing projects. She even accuses Seigl of sleeping with Busch, and treating her like a prostitute. This isn't totally off base, being that Seigl actually likes to imagine Busch as one of the Eastern European prostitutes he encountered while abroad but never slept with. Jetimah, furious, then departs the house and falls out of touch.
It is not long before Busch actually begins proving Jetimah right and begins stealing from Seigl. Busch develops a hatred for Jews meanwhile, something reinforced not only by her upbringing, but by Dmitri's virulent antisemitism (he asserts repeatedly that the Holocaust was a hoax, for instance). Busch is disgusted by Seigl's kindness and ability to be so attentive to what she might want on out of life. Seigl, meanwhile, thinks he is being kind and doesn't understand that Busch is growing to loathe him.
Soon enough Seigl experiences a brief remission from his ailment and begins to feel better again. He gives Busch time off, which he thinks she'll appreciate, although she prefers to work instead. Seigl, after feeling good enough to enjoy a heavy night of partying, comes back drunk after having sex with prostitutes. Busch helps him into the house and, in the coming days, his disease returns full force. As he continues to idealize Busch in his moments of vulnerability, she begins plotting to kill him, thinking that doing so will allow her to return into the good graces of her antisemitic father. She attempts to put glass in a casserole but drops it before she can serve it to Seigl. She tries to mix up his pills, destroys his work, and pees in his food.
The two at one point get into an argument in which Busch denies the verity of the Holocaust. Seigl, after denouncing her as ignorant, reveals to her his true identity: that he was actually born Presbyterian and isn't a Jew. This shocks Busch. But it also alters her feelings for him. When he enters the hospital to undergo treatment for his disease she decides to stand by him, and the two actually begin to fall in love. he is hospitalized to halt the progression of his disease, she decides to remain by his side.
In the final pages, Busch tends to Seigl in his home, and it ends up seeming like she may be able to turn over a new leaf. But the fairytale ending doesn't last. Seigl dies while on a hike with Busch from a massive heart attack, after which he falls down a set of stairs. Some suspect Busch of murdering him and is made the beneficiary of the estate. Soon after, Jetimah comes back to kill her in an act of random vengeance. The book ends on a dour note, with Seigl and Busch dead and gone.
Best scene in story:
I like the scenes when Busch and Seigl talk about the verity of the holocaust, exposing the nature of bigotry.
Opinion about the main character:
I think Seigl was too naive for a man of his character. It didn't make sense to me.